me, myself and a.i.

With digital intelligence accelerating, it is time to think..

AI discourse has escaped from the confines of the Science and Technology section. Culture pages run reviews on AI art shows, AI-written essays are published in the comment section, and an AI-anchor sometimes even sums it all up. What does this, and our reaction to it, tell us about ourselves?

For as long as people have been exposed to intelligent machines they have been asking themselves what their existence means for humankind. Much of the discourse on AI obsesses over what it is that differentiates us from computers – e.g. having emotion and values, or being able to make abstract decisions – prompting new definitions of what it means to be human. Increasingly, however, it seems that many are embracing that which we have in common.

Perhaps this is because AI is blending in more effectively than ever. Whilst physical AI robots can alienate with their slight deviations from a humanlike appearance (a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley”), AI-powered digital personalities can easily assimilate into the cultural world. Confusing an AI’s Twitter feed for that of a human would be an easy mistake to make. Furthermore, social media provides the perfect arena for AI to consistently exhibit its ability to have humanlike interactions, careers, thoughts and friendships.

It’s also worth remembering that our own existences are increasingly digital, given the considerable amount of time we spend online daily and the growing integration of wearable technology into our lives, perhaps allowing empathy with this formless existence. The fanbases of certain “digital humans” is testimony to their successful mimicry: CGI influencer Lil Miquela’s fans respond to and open up to her as though she were human, whilst the language prediction model GPT-3 writes about his appreciation of a reader’s recent feedback in its article for the Guardian.

Given that, in the eyes of some, the most useful function of AI is its ability to “think” in an entirely un-humanlike way, and even to outsmart human beings, does our interest in watching AI do exactly as we do point to a kind of species-wide narcissism? Or simply to a widespread ignorance about the varied capabilities of AI? Why are many so keen for AI to engage with us on a cultural level?

Humans have an innate tendency to anthropomorphise non-living objects; we were projecting personalities onto machines long before they were taught to have converse with us à la Siri (for example, pleading with a clunky desktop PC to have saved a Word document). We could see AI a real-time experiment into what happens when this desire to anthropomorphise can be realised. We’ve already seen that once it is possible to interact with non-human objects, the next step is to locate them within the wider social schema.

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Clifford Nass, expert in human-computer interaction, has shown that people will behave towards computers in line with culture-specific politeness norms – ignoring a pop-up if it interrupts a prior engagement with a different application, for example. We also apply gender norms to our computers, valuing and treating them differently depending on whether we perceive them as male or female. This explains our tendency to develop humanlike relationship dynamics with AIs, but not quite our growing interest in their cultural output.

Here, perhaps the long-held belief that art can be a window to truth is relevant. Literature, opera and visual arts especially have been credited (and sometimes tasked) with demonstrating some kind of intrinsic human truth, or functioning as a window to human nature, for many hundreds of years. Generally, art is widely accepted as a tool useful for overcoming language barriers and promoting intercultural understanding. Perhaps widespread fascination with AI-generated art, therefore, stems from the conscious or subconscious belief that AI’s “creative” output could reveal hitherto unrealised facets and aspects of their nature and provide more clues as to AI’s place in the established social schema.

Or on a more prosaic level, we could see art as simply an accessible medium through which anyone can understand AI’s strengths and weaknesses, without having to get to grips with feature extracting algorithms or probabilistic models. Anyone can comprehend, for instance, that AI’s lack of a limiting corporeal form is in many ways a strength, but at the same time might inhibit its ability to compose truly human-like piano music because it does not have to consider the logistics of finger placements in phrasing.

An artist’s physicality is often an important source of influence or uniqueness in their work: Frida Kahlo used her disability as a theme in many of her self-portraits, whilst Monet’s eye disease is sometimes suggested to be the cause of his unusual colour schemes. In contrast, the eerily blurred, faceless portraits produced by AI artist “AICAN” for a recent New York exhibition (after it had been “fed” a collection of sample portraits) demonstrate well that AI can, precisely by virtue of not sharing our biology and therefore processing data differently, produce original art that breaks the mould.

One drawback of welcoming AI artists into the fold is the danger that we might forget that these fleshed-out, autonomous creatives are the product of human programming. This could result in AI seeming more “woke” than it really is: the overwhelmingly mixed-race face of AI (see Ai-Da, the AI-powered robot artist, or the majority of AI-powered Instagram influencers) is not necessarily a reflection on the diversity of those sat in Silicon Valley writing the code.

Another is the possibility that the proliferation of cultured, social AIs into our daily lives could result in a failure to focus on the areas in which AI has harnessed our weaknesses rather than shared in our strengths. It is important to avoid any kind of sweeping assessment of AI’s place in the world: after all, AI plays a key part in manipulating our psychology in order keep our eyes glued to social media feeds whilst at the same time powering the CGI influencers who fill these feeds with posts about social justice. For now at least, we can be confident that AI’s explosion into the world of art and culture says as much about us as it does about it.