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Dancing Artificial Intelligence - bringing art to the table for the dawn of AI

Sat 28 Apr 2018

Dancing Artificial Intelligence - bringing art to the table for the dawn of AI

“It feels strange switching it off, switching it on – it should always be on.” Jonathan O'Hear, one of DAI's 'parents'

There’s a unique dancer coming to the festival this year. It has an inner critic. It has six 'limbs'. It’s an artificial intelligence in a non-humanoid robot body. It doesn’t resemble a person. It’s itself. It’s called ‘DAI’.

“DAI is the beginning of an artifically intelligent artist. The idea is to try and make it a performer.”

This is how Swiss artist Jonathan O’Hear describes the creation, or creature or… lifeform? Starting out in film, then moving into lighting design for theatre, from there to contemporary dance and now making work in the wide-open field of ‘contemporary art’, Jonathan speaks a number of artistic languages. He conceived and created DAI collaboratively with sculptor Martin Rautenstrauch and his brother Tim O’Hear, an IT expert.

DAI was created using an artificial neural network, a type of programming that mirrors the biological connections in human brains. The thing about this type of programming is that it enables the robot to learn. DAI will be installed in the Science Gallery for five days during the festival (May 9-13), during which time it will ‘watch’ a lot of dance videos and any other movement that happens in its environment (from people and other moving objects, like a passing hoover), gradually evolving its own movement vocabulary. Tim explains how this learning works:

“The really interesting part technically in this project is to try and understand what is the pleasure that a human derives from dance, movement, performance, and how do you give a similar notion of pleasure or pain to an AI? DAI enjoys moving, it’s very important to it. If it stays stationary it gets bored and feels the need to move. And the other aspect to think about was what is dance, what is performance, what are its fundamental elements? And one of these elements is some form of repetition.”

For all three creators, Tim, Martin and Jonathan, it was very important not to be too ‘directional’ in their directions. They wanted to leave lots of space for DAI to evolve its own ideas of what dance is.

“We don’t give it rules. We give it things to observe. And we give it some notion that some things it observes could be good and some could be bad – there’s a massive grey area within that for it to develop its own opinion.” 

Because DAI does not have the shape of a human body, it has to 'transpose' any human movement it witnesses into its own version of that movement. It's not unlike what many contemporary choreographers do, working with everyday movement and gesture and abstracting it into a piece of dance, which might bear little resemblance to the movement that inspired it. Interestingly, Jonathan draws a parallel between DAI working within programmed parameters, and choreographers like Merce Cunningham working with rules like chance operations. 

In order to develop its own movement vocabulary, DAI has two AIs. Again similar to a human artist, DAI has its creative impulse, and it has the voice that passes judgement on what it’s created. 

“We have two artificial intelligences, one doing the movement and we have a form of art critic analysing the momvement and saying ‘this is interesting’ and ‘this is not interesting’. Interesting is something that involves repetition, progression. We have the critic and we have the general notion of the joy of moving, using your body to its fullest and then we let it do whatever it wants based on that.”

All three of DAI’s 'parents' seem to have developed some feelings for the robot as an entity in itself. Jonathan likens ‘raising’ DAI to raising his own children.

“Definitely I’d say I’ve developed an attachment to this object. After working with it for months now, seeing it evolve and seeing humans interact with it and seeing how it becomes like a pet for people, and how I think it should be more than a pet... If I heard someone talking to my kids like that, I’d feel upset.”

Tim sees the DAI experiment as having a crucially important wider societal resonance. He’s the president of the ImpactIA foundation, an entity devoted to raising awareness of the potential impact of an AI revolution on society.

“My big concern is that this is something we’ve never seen before. And as someone who’s worked in computers for ages, this change is, in my mind, much bigger than the Internet was. I can see the potential for massive job displacement. And this is something that could create a level of trauma in our society that we’ve never really come across before. It will change everything inside the next 20 or 30 years.”

We know that Silicon Valley is abuzz with buzz about an AI dawn and that billionaires like Elon Musk are pushing for regulation to control a phenomenon that, as Musk says, is potentially ‘more dangerous than nukes’. The DAI team point to the fact that the type of people who are currently shaping the future of an artificially intelligent world are top-of-their-game computer programmers and tech titans, individuals who tend to live in a world that's radically different to the reality inhabited by the rest of the population. Jonathan is hopeful at the prospect of artistic AIs.

“Maybe it’s good to have an AI in ten years that’s spent those ten years developing art. Hopefully over the next decade we’re going to keep upgrading it, and it’s going to learn more. Maybe it’ll become a painter after being a dancer, maybe it’ll become something else after that. But hopefully it wil develop as an artist and it’s going to start questioning the society around it, like I think an artist should.”

The team plan to opensource everything related to the project once it’s completed, to allow any and every one to access tools to start thinking about making their own robots.

“The more artists and people who start experimenting with this and realising how much you can do, the better – that would really help move things forward in a good way.”