Drew Hemment discusses the first Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) artist residency, one of two Experiential AI projects in 2020 that investigate the entanglements between humans and machines, and explore how experiential methods can reveal insights on future scenarios for ethical and responsible AI. Drew Hemment is Chancellors Fellow and Reader at Edinburgh Futures Institute and Edinburgh College of Arts.
In this residency, artists Caroline Sinders and Anna Ridler will collaborate with the Experiential AI research group to investigate hidden dimensions in AI systems, and to experiment with new models for collaboration between artists and AI researchers.
Championing artists working with AI
Both are internationally recognised award-winning artists. Anna is also a programmer and a linguist, and has presented papers at AI conferences including NeurIPS. Caroline is also a design researcher and human rights advocate, who works with industry, the UN and US Senate.
Caroline and Anna were awarded the Experiential AI residency as part of the European ARTificial Intelligence Lab (AI Lab) by an expert jury from the University of Edinburgh, Ars Electronica, and Edinburgh International Festival, and selected from 161 entries from 42 countries.
Why an artist residency at a University?
The Experiential AI group at Edinburgh Futures Institute and Edinburgh College of Art looks at how collaboration between artists and AI researchers can lead to new perspectives on and explanations of AI.
In awarding the residency to Caroline and Anna, we were looking for artists who would want to actively participate in research as full collaborators. Caroline and Anna tell us they were attracted to Edinburgh Futures Institute by the research dimension in the residency.
The residency with the Experiential AI group breaks ground in more ways than one: it is the first artist residency of Edinburgh Futures Institute, and also the first time Anna and Caroline have worked together.
New perspectives on and explanations of AI
Responding to the Experiential AI theme of entanglements between humans and machines, Caroline and Anna proposed an artistic exploration of human aspects, inputs and decisions involved in each step of creating an AI. This can inform how we think about authorship and IP in AI art, and also more widely about the agency people have over automated systems. Already in the early stages of the residency, the focus has widened, to look at the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial cost of creating an AI.
During the residency, Caroline and Anna want to unpick complex systems from start to finish. They will work with AI researchers in science, engineering, design and social sciences at Edinburgh to investigate current AI practice. Through a critical art inquiry they aim to make transparent how human influence shapes eventual model output and to contribute to debates on ethical AI.
What does art bring to AI?
Caroline and Anna will experiment with ways of giving audiences direct experience of AI systems. The hypothesis for the Edinburgh research team is that this can make AI more explainable, and inspire new concepts and paradigms on ethical and responsible AI.
Art can make ephemeral things visible and tangible. Software and datasets are ephemeral, yet they take up real space, in terms of servers and energy, and human labour.
Art can be liberating, it can open up conversations, reframe difficult problems, traverse uncertain ground, bring attention to things quickly, and express constructs that are hard to grasp.
In their individual practice, both artists build datasets, Anna to create visual art and understand the human quality of AI, and Caroline to look at technology design through the lens of social justice.
Through the residency, Caroline and Anna hope to make AI more explainable by building an entire system, that audiences will experience. The artists will create their own artistic dataset and software, putting in the labour themselves, to make that explicit in the enquiry and final work. The aim is to create a living archive for reflection, that can be expressed in different ways.
Lessons for the Arts and AI sectors
This will be a true collaboration, with Anna, Caroline and the Experiential AI research team working together to investigate the artists’ topic, and to study and evaluate the interactions between the artists, engineers and ethicists along the way. As practitioners, Anna and Caroline are interested in where this work sits, how the residency can touch different spaces: the arts and academic research, and also policy and industry.
Due to COVID-19, we are reimagining what an artist ‘residency’ that crosses multiple domains can be. We are looking for new ways to present ideas and experiences, and capture responses to those; ways to create an interactive loop, rather than a linear thread.
The outbreak forced us to cut Anna’s and Caroline’s first visit to Edinburgh short, but it also enabled us to talk from the outset about a longer relationship with the artists. I hope this is just the start, and we can deepen understanding and practice over the coming years, for both artists and AI practitioners.
The residency is delivered in partnership with Ars Electronica as part of AI Lab (the European ARTificial Intelligence Lab). Experiential AI is a research theme and cluster at the Edinburgh Futures Institute and Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh. It is a partnership with the Bayes Centre, Informatics, and Heriot Watt Robotarium. It is supported by Creative Scotland and the Data-Driven Innovation programme of the South East Scotland City and Region Deal.