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AI: More Than Human at the Barbican

What a Loving and Beautiful World, © teamLab. Image Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

From Ada Lovelace's first notions of a computer to freakily-responsive puppy dogs

The Barbican’s new exhibition, held in its Curve space, takes in artifical intelligence from its inception to its power today.

The exhibition starts us off pretty early – with the Jewish Golem and ancient Japanese animist beliefs. There is a lot of ground to cover between then and now, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Ada Lovelace’s propositions for a “a calculus of the nervous system” all the way up to Siri and Alexa, but the exhibition doesn’t shy away from trying to cover it all.
 
Some of the most captivating parts of the exhibition are the most low-tech. Letters between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage make for fascinating reading, as is Alan Turing and a journalist discussing the possibilities of a chess-playing computer. There is also an enlarged letter co-signed by prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk condemning AI weapons. These items help us look back at how we thought about AI in its earliest incarnations, and investigate how we might be thinking – rightly or wrongly – about AI in the present.
 
Alter 3 © Hiroshi Ishiguro, Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
Alter 3 © Hiroshi Ishiguro, Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi. Image Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But the investigation doesn’t go much further than this. The exhibition is in general more concerned with showing what AI can do now and there are a gamut of little games and interactive pieces to demonstrate this. For the most part, this is surprisingly unimpressive – swiping through a Tinder-like judgment system of AI-created images (are they interesting, or not interesting?) gets boring fast when they’re almost entirely dark smudges. Left-swipe.
 
There are some installations which capture the imagination though; in the Pit, teamLab’s ‘What a Loving and Beautiful World’ allows visitors to influence projections around them by interacting with Chinese characters, and back in the Curve visitors can play with a freakily-responsive robot puppy dog. Though relatively low-tech, a lego-based game in which you must try to create a city which has low pollution, high employment and high livability by using different-coloured blocks representing commercial buildings, housing, green spaces, etc. But these games don't explain how the artifical intelligence works, or what its implications might be.
 
aibo © Sony Corporation Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
aibo © Sony Corporation. Image Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Importantly, the exhibition does address the inherent biases of AI created by biased humans. Joy Buolamwini’s work on the race and gender bias present in facial recognition technology is particularly noteworthy, though it’s ironically not given enough space.
 
There is a vast amount to contend with here, as is often the case with Barbican exhibitions. It would have been a more rewarding experience to come away feeling the exhibition had really investigated some of the bigger questions around AI, rather than getting bogged down in the tricks it can perform. But if you have a good chunk of time to dedicate to it, this exhibition will certainly stimulate your curiosity.

AI: More Than Human is at the Barbican until 26 August 2019
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