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Exhibition Review: AI: More Than Human @ Barbican

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As I made my way through the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican Centre, one piece in particular caught my eye.  It was a 1951 letter to Alan Turing from science editor Derek Wragge Morley, who was keen to report on his groundbreaking, chess-playing, “computing machine”. 

Morley was concerned about how to make such a complex subject accessible to ordinary people who aren’t scientific prodigies: it reads, “the chief trouble is of course, to make the matter really intelligible to the public”. Unfortunately, and ironically, it is exactly this that AI: More Than Human fails to do.

Japanese pottery with human features / Image credit: Charlotte Torode

I was excited for this exhibition, I wanted to love it; as someone who has always been more artistically inclined but has nonetheless been fascinated by what science can teach me I was hopeful that a family-oriented AI exhibition would make the complexities of a subject normally out of my reach somewhat accessible.   

Quantity over quality 

For me, though, AI: More Than Human is a case of quantity over quality. It begins with a history of traditional Jewish lore in which inanimate, non-living items - namely the Golem - can come alive, and swiftly moves on to ancient Japanese pottery and modern Japanese cartoons. There’s even a large wall-hanging dedicated to primitive counting systems.  These weren’t the promised “cutting-edge research projects” that I was expecting to experience first-hand.

Doraemon, a popular Japanese cat-type robot in Japenese / Image credit: Charlotte Torode

Unfortunately when I did finally meet these cutting-edge research projects, they were too great in number and too limited in relavance and detail; suddenly, stone artefacts and plastic cartoon figurines were replaced with an overload of technology in a room packed with mini stands showcasing AI in its many, many forms. Some of these stands are a triumph; they showed me how incredible AI is and what a positive impact it could have on our way of life in the future. It enabled me to envision a life in which the presence of AI is no more notable than the presence of the latest iPhone. teamLab's "What a Loving and Beautiful World" room is breathtaking and magical, and exactly the kind of exhibit that will get even the most reluctant of people interested in and inspired by the capabilities of AI.  

 

Moments of brilliance

A replica of the “bombe” device used to help decipher German Enigma-machine-encrypted secret messages during World War II stands in front of a large screen showing clips of the same machine being deployed in the 2014 film The Imitation Game. For me, being able to see this machine in action - albeit fictionally - was just the link I needed to turn these complex scientific artefacts into valid and appreciable parts of human existence.

Replica of the "bombe" / Image credit: Charlotte Torode

Equally as interesting was the short “Data Worlds” cartoon video that demonstrated how AI has been integrated into everyday life in China: intelligent street lights that respond to changes in weather and traffic conditions to conserve energy and reduce light pollution, AI fitted cameras that can help to find criminals and missing children, facial and product recognition in stores that can automatically process customer checkout and payment.  

MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative’s food computer uses AI-driven computer forms to monitor and control its climate, energy use and plant growth. Plants’ growing conditions can be optimised, and sure enough there on the stand was a clear box full of thriving shrubs. As our own climate crisis becomes ever more pronounced, it was interesting to see how the world of AI could potentially respond.  

Personal Food Computer / Image credit: Charlotte Torode

Unfortunately, these gems were drowned out by the noise of other, less-relevant or relatable pieces. The exhibition is festival-style and centre-wide, but there was so much crammed into such a small space that it was almost impossible to decide what merited my attention. Jumping from a flashing totem to the Golem to a wall of tulips to town-planning software was disjointed and disorienting. There were also so many visitors that I didn’t get a chance to try most of the interactive exhibits, because I wasn’t willing to stand and queue for 20 minutes just to play a video game or decrypt codes.  

Perhaps most ironic was that in an exhibition that celebrates technological advancement, there were multiple technological malfunctions: the screeen integral to the Circuit Training exhibit was broken, the PoemPortraits photo machine had a temporary blip, and all of the videos that I’m sure were supposed to help me understand the complexity of AI were inaudible in such a bustling exhibition space.  

My computer-generated PoemPortrait / Image courtesy of Charlotte Torode

In short, despite the sheer quantity of exhibits, most of them left me thinking “how is this relevant?” Mechanical dogs in pens are cute and robots that react to their surroundings are cool, but the lack of continuity and succinct explanations left me feeling confused and, quite frankly, stupid. This exhibition had the potential to make a technophobe like me finally appreciate all the ways my life could one day benefit from embracing the non-human.  Instead, I left feeling grateful that the dystopia I’d experienced was just an exhibition and not something I’ll have to contend with again in the near future.  

Lead image credit: Charlotte Torode




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