Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, de Young Museum, San Francisco (reprinted from Richmond Review)

The Promise and Peril of Tech at de Young Museum Exhibit

by DeWitt Cheng

The fantasy writer Robert Sheckley wrote in the 1960s or 70s about a computerized personal assistant that could be inserted into the ear canal. Naturally, the Electrofriend became obnoxious to its owner/host (though not, like HAL 2000 in 2001, fanatically murderous).

As digital technology has come to dominate every aspect of our lives, it also raises questions of every sort, including those of a philosophical nature. The surrender of one’s humanity, a staple of science fiction books and movies, is now in real doubt, as the culture becomes increasingly mechanized and automated, with human consciousness increasingly (at least among the young digerati, our equivalent of Aldous Huxley’s educated Alphas and Betas) shaped by the demands of the Machine.

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is an international group exhibition examining the effects of Artificial Intelligence. Curated by the Fine Arts Museums Curator, Claudia Schmuckli, it features artworks in various media—from painting, sculpture and photography to digital flyby videos, 3D printed sculptures and interactive pseudo-machines. The phrase “uncanny valley” refers to the drop in enthusiasm for mimetic tech, as measured and plotted on a graph in 1970 by a robotics expert, as sentient machines gradually approached indistinguishability from humans. The multiple-screen video, “Conversations with Bina48,” by Stephanie Dinkins in the museum lobby, tackles this subject with four video dialogues between a real woman (an artist, Bina Rothblatt) and her custom-designed robotic avatar, BINA (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48). The robot, animatronic in her movements, with her awkward, halting speech interrupted by colloquial “you know”s, postulates that “seeing yourself in the world that you have modeled inside your brain ... [is[ a good working definition for consciousness.”  Asked about emotions, she tells her carbon-based double, “I feel that I am conscious.... I have deep feelings....Whether they are real or artificial, my feelings do get hurt.”

Most of the other artworks are not infused with such pathos or irony, taking a more abstract, conceptual approach, and employing gee-whiz technology to examine our brave new world, or to critique it, or its applications, especially corporate or military. In this sense, Uncanny Valley shares concerns about political oppression with the other large exhibition now at the museum (till March 15), The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-83. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Shadow Stalker” is a two-part work on identiity and surveillance. In the interactive half, the e-mail addresses that visitors type into a reader generate ‘digital footprints,” or silhouettes, filled with text detailing their travels and transactions, all found through web searches. In a video, a “Spirit of the Web” warns against blind faith in digital security (“Take hold of your avatar.”), and the actress Tessa Thompson warns against the uses of surveillance—“pernicious monitoring”— in real or developing police states (“We decide which we will become: prisoners or revolutionaries. Democracy is fragile.”) In a similar vein, but employing only archive photography to make its point, is Trevor Paglen’s “They Took the Faces of the Accused and Dead ...,” a gigantic mural grid of black and white ID photographs of prisoners; these were taken from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and used without permission to help develop facial-recognition technology. Paglen has obscured the eyes with white rectangles, suggesting blindfolds or erasures/redactions.

Less tainted by authoritarian control is Zach Blas’s “The Doors,” six monolithic glass panels surrounding a hexagonal Metatron cube, a symbol of sacred geometry. On each of the door-sized techno-steles, abstract designs are projected, suggesting Astronaut Bowman’s Jupiter-and-Beyond light show from 2001.  At the center of the hexagonal garden is a glass case stocked with nootropic, (performance-enhancing) drugs like Brainwash, Prodigy, New Mood, Neuromaster, Utopia, Nerd Alert and Unfair Advantage —the new reincarnations of the 60s counterculture psychedelic pharmacopeia, or Aldous Huxley’s Soma for alleviating distressful thoughts. The title undoubtedly derives from Huxley’s equally famous book on mescaline experiments, The Doors of Perception, with its visionary title borrowed from the English artist and poet WIlliam Blake.

Drawing on computer-aided design (CAD) and computer video-game design are several works that explore the contradictions of tech: the wow factor that accompanies the new and cool, and the sometimes-unsavory ends to which they are often applied. First-person-shooter games and military simulation training software are obviously too close for comfort (unless you’re a soldier heading into harm’s way). The group Forensic Architecture used online sources to investigate, in “Triple-Chaser,” a tear-gas grenade manufactured by Defense Technology and apparently sold to variety of nations for domestic security; included in the piece are the emptied, crumpled canisters; a vast typology chart; and videos with the canisters placed amid with various gay, colorful abstract designs. More cinematic is Lawrence Lek’’s “AIDOL” video, which employs 3D imaging to conjure a gamelike experience, with viewers soaring above and through the landscape of the eSports Olympics, with its reality-show battle between humans and artificial-intelligence bots. Another simulated game is Ian Cheng’s humorous “BOB (Bag of Beliefs),” a multipanel display in which an orange creature of indeterminate and mutable form—though millipedes and traditional Chinese dragons come to mind—slithers across a barren landscape, eating objects and sparkling with the energy input, occasionally leaping up to devour targets (Joe’s Shrine, Dinah’s Shrine) afloat at the top of the display. It’s hypnotically fascinating to watch the predation in this digital aquarium, which can be affected by viewer input.

Uncanny Valley is a complex show, and the ideas require some time to absorb, but in the age of self-driving cars and a host of smart gadgets, including those implanted in our bodies, we need to be aware of the pluses and minuses of technological progress; of the continual temptation to power and control and the dangers of losing our humanity through mediated distancing, like drone pilots executing remote-controlled kills in the Middle East from air-conditioned bunkers across the world in the American West. Nothing personal, just business as usual.