The Past: Latent Space
When I first started learning AI, I was fascinated by this thing called “The Latent Space” - a way of essentially opening up a an AI’s brain in training to see what it imagines as it attempts to make sense of the Human World.
I loved the weird imperfection and unexpected surprises. I thought this would be an amazing tool in the hands of an artist - but the technical barriers were high. The purpose of the course was to lift some of those technical barriers.
The Present: AI’s Midjourney
Nowadays AI has its hooks in everything and we’ve gone from the latent to the hyperreal.
The AI imaginings that used to require a time intensive martialing of complex and expensive systems can now be conjured by a “prompt engineer” through a browser text field.
We’ve even got Stable Diffusion rendering images from our brain activity.
Where does this leave the artist?
To find out if and how artists are using AI today I decided to ask the person I thought least likely to do so, my friend Peter Burr.
Peter is an artist, professor, and PhD candidate at RPI. His work has been recognized by the Whitney, Guggenheim, the New Museum.
Peter has made a career of subverting dominant aesthetics and narratives - most recently with “Boom Town.” Taking a cue from the towns that sprung up during the gold rush to attract prospectors and speculators looking for the fast track to a better life, this metaverse artwork changes dynamically based on the volatile crypto trading market on the Ethereum Blockchain.
From Deep Dream to Productivity Tool
Peter told me he was using AI in a variety of ways. He said Stable Diffusion was able to help him quickly generate concept sketches for pitch decks and grant applications, and chatGPT helped him ideate on the narratives weaved throughout his projects.
In some sense, AI has gone from deep dreamer to productivity tool.
These days, it’s harder for me to see the technical barriers that need to be removed for people. In contrast, people are actually seeking out barriers against the inundation of tech.
I stumbled across an article by Erik Hoel that referred to this landscape as “the Supersensorium,” and the feeling experienced as part of the “Overfitted Brain Hypothesis.”
When you train a Machine Learning model too heavily on a particular dataset, it gets great at solving problems in that domain, but bad at solving for new information. This is called “overfitting.”
Since the Mesozoic era animals have dreamed as a way to introduce nuance to our routine lives. Without dreams, the hypothesis goes, our own minds are also constantly at risk of overfitting.
While sleep may be a cerebrospinal scrubbing of unnecessary memories, dreams introduce nuance to the things we do remember - they allow our minds to extrapolate, prepare us for new information, unexpected circumstances…
In a way, I see the artist serving a similar function for society. They take a look at the overfitted aspects of our culture and try to spot the gaps, the cracks, the untold stories.
They’re Seers of sorts, reaching in to untie the knot in our brains, introducing nuance to prepare us for unforeseen futures.
No unforeseen future looms more ominous to me than that of our planet.
The Internet consumes 3 times more energy than our current wind and solar power sources can provide, with data traffic doubling every 2 years.
So what if tech won’t go the way of the Supersensorium?
What if the future is resilient networks, low energy devices, tech that gets out of your way? Offline-first tech that can adapt to rapid changes and unpredictable underlying infrastructure?
…Or what if it’s both?
On Friday I attended an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum by the artist Hito Steyerl called “This is the Future.” The narrative centers on Heja, who is sentenced to prison by a neural network that calculates that she will one day commit a crime.
In prison she cultivates a garden that she protects from the guards by hiding it in the future. Here the plants evolve through the predictive powers of the neural network. These “Power Plants” learn to remedy a range society’s ills - social media addiction, a culture of overwork.
Steyerl paints “a vision of nature capable of healing the present.” This is a future where the societal status of the natural world is elevated. To me it’s an example of the artist showing us the lucid dreams needed by our overfitted brains.
If you get a chance to see this exhibit in person, I highly recommend it - a video won’t do it justice. Same is true of anything by Peter Burr. And if it’s been awhile since you’ve patronized the arts or gotten outdoors, I highly encourage you to support your local Seers and exit the Supersensorium.