Incredible and unprecedented, the exhibition of Ian Cheng Life after BOB, currently on view at The Shed in New York City through Dec. 19, champions art at the intersection of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. In fact, there is no exhibition like this. On one side of the fourth level of The Shed, a 48-minute narrative animation, titled “Life After BOB: The Chalice Study”, built using the Unity video game engine, plays. He follows 10-year-old Alice Wong after her father installs an experimental AI in her, nicknamed BOB (short for “Bag of Beliefs”). On the other half of the room, the same animation takes place but at the command of the spectators. Using their phones as remote controls, they can pause, rewind, and zoom in on the animation to discover more information about the characters, wildlife, or objects. Then, whether outside or inside the exhibition, viewers can update and evolve the animation by editing the work’s Wiki page, where the changes feed into the simulation. in real time.
Often using technology and video games as a medium, Cheng is no stranger to exploring what it means to live in an increasingly technological world. In 2017, his Emissaries The exhibition at MoMA PS1 featured simulations that saw people interacting in a fictional world. In 2018, Cheng’s exhibition BOB created a sentient virtual creature from which his latest show was inspired. Yet unlike the others, Life after BOB mixes storytelling, simulated storytelling, interactive world-building and the anxieties of contemporary life, revealing how human the simulations are from the start and opening up optimistic avenues for the future. We spoke with Cheng about the use of AI as an art form, the collective aspect of this exhibit, and why he thinks NFTs are beautiful.
What inspires you to use AI and video game engines as a medium?
Stupid story, but I was at Whole Foods in 2012 having lunch on Houston Street. They have like a small terrace for the dining room which overlooks the salad bar. I was watching the people there. People would steal food, they would take things, put them back, bring their dogs back, flirt. It was this whole ecosystem, contained in Whole Foods and contained in my line of sight, and I thought, “Oh my god, I have to do something like this.” Forget about trying to make linear stories. I have to do something that looks like a small world. The only way to really do this without actually staging it like it’s a theater, a performance, or live animals is to try and cannibalize a video game engine into itself. plays itself.
At one point, I started to do a lot of research, not only in AI, but also in human psychology and animal psychology, to try to find models that could describe a new approach to AI. And I realized that when you embody an intelligence, it’s both a more difficult problem but also something that we conceptualize a lot more easily because that’s how we relate to our own intelligence. I started to be interested in neurosymbolic AI models and cognitive architectures, inspired by Carl Jung, which dealt with the behavioral complexity of an agent by breaking it down into sub-personalities.
Your work often deals with emerging behaviors. Can you talk about it and why fall back on this topic?
One of the key things I found while doing simulations was that the secret sauce was emergent behavior. To define it very simply, it is the idea that the sum is greater than its parts. You have hydrogen. You have oxygen. Put them together and you can’t tell hydrogen and oxygen are wet, but you can tell water is wet.
I recently learned that the brain’s neocortex is made up of those cortical columns that are responsible for creating competing models of the world, and that the interaction of these cortical columns might be responsible for producing the emerging effect of a unified experience of the world. . I think emergent properties occur at the level of nature, of course, and in a much dumber, more constrained way, in simulations – a property that makes works of art seem alive. When I look at the art and also the art that I aspire to do, there is a feeling of vitality.
Part of the vitality of Life after BOB is collective nature, which you call “globalizing”. What is it and what attracted you?
“Worlding” was something I wrote about in between Life after BOB and my previous project, BOB. It was a very simple idea of how can I, as an individual artist, essentially produce a livable community around a specific game. In the case of work on Life after BOB and working with my producer Veronica, we formed a huge team during COVID, and the project became the one thing we could all focus on during COVID.
On the production side, I thought we made a world out of it. In terms of romantic science fiction, in the fantasy sense, I started to think of ‘globalism’ as the well that you can continue to tap into as an author, so that you don’t have to reinvent everything from scratch. . The more you create a world, like Tolkien, or Harry potter Where Star wars, the more of a world that is built through the production of a story, the less work you have to do on the next story to start creating meaningful stories, especially sci-fi, fantasy stories where much of the background informs the details that make a story enjoyable.
There is a certain multiplicity to this, both on the side of the artist and the viewer. Why was this an important factor?
I kept coming back to this instinctive feeling that doing storytelling in a video game engine will give us a basis for doing more “globalization” stuff later on to easily hook up other types of more interactive tangential experiences. For Life after BOB, there is an online wiki, which was inspired by the wikis that emerge when there is fandom for a particular sci-fi or fantasy world, and the changes you make to that wiki, if you were if inclined, would then influence some of the cosmetic details and, later, the behavioral details of the various artifacts and background objects in a given scene. I like to think of it as a programmable movie. The hope was to try and make something that looks like a movie right now, but that could then have some clever abilities to really turn it into something much bigger.
Why do you gravitate simulation ?
I am thinking of two things with simulation. I think, more and more, we hear that word in context as AI grows. We hear more and more that in order to achieve something that resembles general intelligence, one would have to create an intelligent artificial system capable of simulating its own possible futures. And then you realize, in this talk, where we’re trying to design AI, that we ourselves – consciousness – is a simulated property. Consciousness is an emergent property that lives on a simulated level of a simulated representation in the patterns created by neurons. When you think, “Am I going for some coffee?” Am I going out? I’m going to be shy ”, it’s all just a simulation.
What is the relationship between storytelling and AI?
Stories for me are cards. They are maps of how to behave and behave, so stories inherently have moral value. The more we can share this responsibility with interesting AI models in the future, the wider the range of adaptive behaviors we can observe developing in the form of stories. Sky is the limit. We don’t always have to write down the hero’s journeys. We can write different types of stories that illustrate and animate the complexity of new types of behavior that respond to the complexity of our environment. I am quite optimistic about this merger.
Stories for me are cards. They are maps of how to behave and behave, so stories inherently have moral value.
you described BOB like “art with a nervous system”, and indeed, there is a lot of anxiety throughout the animation. What made you talk about nervousness? And what does channeling these human emotions through art, especially art, offer you when it comes to AI?
The episode of Life after BOB begins with a subtitle that says ‘this is a great anomic era’, which means a kind of turmoil or instability that comes with a certain era, a fancy way of saying that people live in an era of persistent anxiety, where institutions crumble and a long-term meaning of life crumbles. This is something I was feeling myself in my mid-thirties. When I was writing my daughter was not yet born. She was about to be born, so I thought about my own life, the impact that being a father would have and of course her. How do you raise a child in what seems like a pretty crazy time? As a parent, you have a huge early influence on a child’s life storyline. There is a line where the father says: “to be a parent is to program”. It was really true when I wrote this. It intertwines with AI in particular, as I thought AI would be the kind of sci-fi trope that can animate something as delicate and abstract as an existential crisis.
With the rise of digital art and NFTs, we are curious, what do you think of NFTs?
I think they are awesome. It’s the best of both worlds. This is the best of Web 1, where people really took to the idiosyncratic, creative side of the web. Then he unites that with all the innovations we see from Web 2.0. NFTs bring together the best of those two things, so you can re-approach the centralization issues and all the privacy and data selling issues, and you can bring back a bit of that individual creator philosophy.
I am really interested in “globalization”. I think there is a way that an individual creator can create a world – not as a mega-institution, where you have to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe to create a world and develop a community around it – but now, as an individual creator with a blockchain economy behind it. You can create and maintain a prosperous world. I think there is something really beautiful about it.
Hero image from “Life After BOB: The Chalice Study” by Ian Cheng (2021), live animation, color, sound, 48 min, courtesy of the artist