Very Private Computing: In Artist’s New Work, A.I. Meets Fatherhood
Ian Cheng felt helpless. It was early 2013; he was nearly 30, with arts degrees from Berkeley and another in Columbia, but he needed an idea, something to build his career on. One winter afternoon, pondering the question in the balcony cafe of Whole Foods Market on Houston Street, a place that promises people-watching and “your time,” he stared absently at the shoppers below.
He was increasingly banned. The market was its own little ecosystem with clear rules but with elements of chance. Someone’s dog who didn’t behave. A guy who sneaks food off the salad bar. People who double up to get a plate. An idea began to form in Cheng’s head, an idea based on his other Berkeley major, cognitive science. His mind wandered to complex systems. Emerging behavior. And what if a video game engine …
Today, eight years later, Cheng is an internationally renowned artist who uses artificial intelligence and video game technology to explore topics such as the nature of human consciousness and a future in which we coexist with intelligent machines.
It is precisely this future that is the subject of his latest work, a 48-minute “narrative animation” – please don’t call it a film – which is currently being shown in Luma Arles, the new art park in southern France. On September 10th it will also be shown at the Shed in New York. The somewhat cryptic title “Life After BOB: The Chalice Study” is a commentary on the potential of AI to mess up your life.
Cheng supporters will recognize BOB from previous exhibitions at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea and the Serpentine Galleries in London. This BOB was a virtual creature, an artificial intelligence whose name stands for “Bag of Beliefs” – perhaps a subtle dig made by early AI researchers who thought they could program a computer with everything it needed to know. His new work is the story of a 10 year old girl named Chalice and her father Dr. Wong, who invented BOB and implanted it in their nervous system when they were born to accompany them as they grow up.
Like the rest of Cheng’s work, Life After BOB is clever, technology-driven, and shaped by cognitive psychology, neuroscience, machine learning, and AI – concepts like deep learning and artificial neural networks that underpin the advances made by Siri and Alexa and facial recognition software . “He is one of the most radical artists who work with digital technology today,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine. Shed Artistic Director Alex Poots agreed, “It’s not like it’s an add-on – technology is in the DNA of the work.”
Cheng himself is a quiet 37-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles, the only child of Hong Kong emigrants who worked in graphic design. He and his wife, artist Rachel Rose, were expecting their first child when he started developing Life After BOB a few years ago. The fear this provoked turned out to be crucial, he explained when we met for coffee near her loft on the Lower East Side.
“I was just thinking, what was this I could do to make myself the worst possible father?” The answer, he decided, would be to combine his work with his parenting. “And that is the main mistake of Dr. Wong, ”said Cheng. “He believes that giving her a BOB at birth will not only help her live a successful life, but also a satisfying and meaningful life.” So Dr. Wong conducted the Chalice Study, an AI experiment with his daughter as a guinea pig. Ultimately (spoiler alert) Chalice has to decide for herself whether she takes her life into her own hands.
There is a direct line from Cheng’s Whole Foods Epiphany to Life After BOB, beginning with a series of works, a variation of the title Entropy Wrangler, created with Unity, a software “engine” that was developed to simplify the task of developing video games. Unity allowed him to simulate the behavior he’d seen at Whole Foods – only that instead of people wandering a market, he could now throw potted plants, concrete blocks, a disembodied hand, a broken office chair, and all sorts of other stuff into a state of constant, endless, frenetic movement that never stops, never returns. “Entropy Wrangler” was a real-time animation in which the same thing never happened twice.
Cheng later introduced characters to his animations and gave them a goal. The first part of this series, “Emissary in the Squat of Gods”, revolves around a young girl who lives in a primitive community on the slopes of a long-dormant volcano. She realizes the volcano could explode soon – but will the villagers pay attention? (Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.)
Cheng could have studied such questions as a cognitive scientist, but he was not interested in an academic career. “I see art as a zone of permission,” he once said. “The only zone in culture where you can explore the present and cannibalize the past with relatively little supervision.” He joins a much more exclusive group: “Today he is one of the great artists of his generation and does work who are looking for their own kind, ”says the video and performance artist Paul Chan, who hired him as an assistant at an early age.
With “Entropy Wrangler” and his “Emissary” series, Cheng created works of art that could do something unexpected in response to interactions he initiated – what cognitive scientists call emergent qualities. His next work, “BOB”, was not only unpredictable in this respect, it was probably also sensitive: a quasi-intelligent computer program that took on physical form as a huge, red, constantly changing, snake-like being behind a glass wall. There wasn’t just one BOB, but several, and when they debuted at the Serpentine in 2018, visitors had radically different experiences.
Some found a certain BOB charming and personable. Other people would ignore it or forget about it. “The gallery was something like an animal shelter,” recalls Obrist. “The BOBs lived and grew at any time of the day.” And then, “About a week after the BOB show started, we got a call in the middle of the night.” The creatures were supposed to sleep when the galleries were closed, but one of them got up at 3 a.m. The code has been corrected; it never happened again. But still.
“Life After BOB”, the work that will be shown next month in the Shed in an exhibition organized by chief curator Emma Enderby, is conventional. It has human characters, an AI character who is just a cartoon, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. It also benefits from Cheng’s recent interest, something he calls “worlding”. People in the entertainment industry call it world-building – creating elaborate backdrops for open-ended stories that fans can immerse themselves in. The Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Western World.”
Unlike his earlier work, “Life After BOB” shows no emergent behavior. The animation is live as the game engine regenerates it every time it is viewed. But it follows the same script unless Cheng rewrites it (which he often does). The innovation comes after visitors see it, when they can turn to another screen behind them and explore the world of Chalice with their smartphone. They can do many of the things that you can do with a TV remote – pause, rewind, review scenes – but since the animation is generated in real time, rather than playing like a video, you can also click an object and change camera angles and zoom in to explore in detail.
This was inspired by the reaction Cheng received when he read Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the classic children’s picture book, on his now 2-year-old daughter Eden – the little girl who wasn’t born when he was so began work. “She knows the story inside out,” he said. “And when she looks at it now, she goes to the caterpillar on the tree and says: ‘Papa, Eden, go in! Eden go in! ‘ She wants to go into the tree. The caterpillar eats a small hole in the apple and wants to get into the apple. It’s like she wants to dive into the details of the world because she’s already metabolized the story. “
This exchange with his daughter brought back a flood of memories. “This is how I felt when I was a kid and watched ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner’. Oh my god – you want to live in this world because there is so much there. ”It’s like you’re seeing the film in two dimensions, x and y, he continued,“ And now you want to be on the z- Go in axis – you want to jump into the movie. And she articulated it for me. “
You can’t do that with a book, of course. The best Cheng can do is touch the apple in the book and then touch his daughter’s forehead. Even that makes her giggle with delight. “But I thought, wow, if I could give this to my daughter? Because your imagination is there ”- if only the technology were there too.
Frank Rose is the author of “The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World”.