In today’s society, where do humans end, and robots begin? Can computer systems out-think humans, or conjure up works of art more creative and vivid than any living person? Can (and should) we feel emotions when we spend time with intelligent robots?
Cute robot dogs
It was difficult not to feel just a smidgeon of emotion when playing with Sony’s robot puppy aibo at AI: More than Human, the new exhibition at the Barbican in London. The little pup yelped, waggled his head, charged around after a ball, and raised his paw for a ‘high five’ if you managed to persuade him to sit. aibo was just a machine. But the people clustered around him were cooing with excitement, just as they would with a tiny pup. And aibo’s clever. He’s developed a unique personality from his database of ‘memories’.
How old do children need to be to visit AI: More Than Human?
The Barbican Centre invited my family to visit AI: More than Human. It’s aimed at people of all ages. When we visited, the public space of London’s Barbican Centre was buzzing with pop-ups on an AI theme, from poetry slams to talks on the future of technology. Lots of children clustered around the stalls featuring AI-related arts and crafts. Inside the exhibition itself, although there were a few kids and teens, most of the other visitors were adults. I’d say that children any younger than ours – seven- and nine-years old – wouldn’t fully appreciate the exhibits.
For children aged seven and over, though, the exhibition was captivating. And under 14s are allowed in for free, so it’s an inexpensive way to find some fun. We spent a good hour and a half exploring the displays and interactive machines. In fact, I had to drag my son away from a game where he played against a computer to predict the next word in a story. He could have stayed there for hours.
My daughter, who loves creating art, spent a while at Learning to See. A camera filmed her hands moving flannels and a few wires around on a table. The video images of her hands turned into visuals featuring flames, then clouds, waves and flowers. It was mesmerising.
We rushed through a section on the uncanny, which our seven year old found a little scary. A large monitor hung over the section, showing a film clip from an old black and white version of Frankenstein’s Monster. But we managed to steer her over to the other side of the room, where we found models and video clips of Doraemon, a cartoon featuring a cat-type robot. Doraemon was a huge hit in 1970s Japan. Its popularity meant that Japanese people didn’t consider it a strange concept for intelligent robots with human-like emotions to live among people.
The scope of AI was huge, ranging from historical artefacts like Alan Turing’s Enigma machine and Deep Blue, the first computer to ever beat chess Grandmasters, to Mario Klingemann’s Circuit Training. This allowed visitors to train a neural network to know what pictures they liked, and then generated a piece of art tailored specifically to them.
As well as chess, AI: More Than Human covered Go, the immensely popular and complicated game played mainly in Japan, China and Korea. In a documentary, scientists dicussed how intelligent robots gaining the intelligence to beat human players at Go could lead to other breakthroughs, in medicine, and environmental science.
Ethics in Artificial Intelligence
Ethics was a big consideration running through the exhibition. A letter signed by tens of public figures, including Professor Stephen Hawking, discussed the dangers of autonomous weapons developed through AI, and how they should never be used. An exhibit looked at how some people might become cut out of a society that relies on intelligent robots. And a cartoon sequence explained how AI has already become the primary fuel for some cities in China, with self-driving cars, the use of facial recognition in shops, and benefits for people who’d behaved well.
Intelligent Robots: the finale
The finale of the exhibition was Universal Everything’s Future You, where visitors could stand in front of a giant robot, and teach it how to move. Although the robot was a little clunky in its shadow movements (a dab was beyond its capabilities), our two children really enjoyed waving their arms around, and watching the robot dance.
A colourful immersive space
But there was an extra treat waiting in store for us. Separate from the main exhibition, in the Barbican’s downstairs cinema space, was teamLab’s immersive digital world. We walked inside a box-like room, where swirling colours and patterns were projected onto the four walls. A polished, jet-black floor reflected back the shifting, undulating forms. Chinese characters floated down from the ceiling, and if you stood in front of them, they changed. Some popped, sending out puffs of bright vermillion or lime green. Others swished away, to be replaced by clouds of cherry blossom, or bright zigzags of colour.
This exhibit sent our children a little wild with excitement. They darted around from one end of the room to the next, tying to ‘catch’ the Chinese letters before they drifted to the ground. D and I just sat on the bench in the middle of the room, watching. A woman who sat next to us said that we should have brought books to read. We stayed there for a good twenty minutes, so there would have been plenty of time.
But it was more entertaining watching the children play in the colourful, magical space. If this is the future of AI, then I’m all for it.
AI: More than Human is at the Barbican Centre, London until 26 August 2019. Tickets range from £10 to £15, and under-14s are free.
Barbican address: Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS
To find out more about what’s on in London this summer, see our guide.