Q&A with artist and inventor Dr. Robin Price.

The Digital Hub, in partnership with acclaimed artist and inventor Robin Price, commissioned the unique art project — ‘Do Algorithms Dream of Electronic Shapes?’ — which ran from January to March 2022. It culminated with an expert panel discussion, which can be viewed below, along with a Q&A with Robin Price.

The public artwork, in the form of a nightly laser projection on the iconic St. Patrick’s Tower at The Digital Hub campus, explored Dublin 8’s relationship with social media and data.

The project aimed to explore people’s complex relationship with technology and how they share their lives through social media. At its core is to question the back-and-forth effect of algorithms on society and society on algorithms.

The art project culminated with a panel discussion, where experts and thought leaders examined issues such as the implicit biases of the datasets, the question of whether platforms and technologies manipulate us, or are we willingly entering a new social mode of prolificity with our eyes wide open, and who owns our digital data and who should be allowed to use it?

You can watch a recording of the panel discussion here.

Q&A with Robin Price.

Tell us about ‘Do Algorithms Dream of Electronic Shapes?’?

It was made in response to Dublin’s smart cities initiative. It was about the ‘what if’ idea of what if all the computers we feed our data to really were intelligent and alive. So, in the future in Dublin, we’ll upload more sensor data and use artificial intelligences to algorithmically help guide decisions on the basis of this data, but we’re already uploading a vast amount of our lives to social media and trying to teach computers about the human ways of seeing the world right now. I was interested in looking at ways to interrogate these attempts to teach computer’s intelligence visually through the metaphor of Dublin’s computers dreaming at night in response to what they had seen uploaded by day.

The project took a random selection of local Instagram posts each day and then fed them to the Google Vision AI at night to ask their computers what they thought they saw in the photos, the algorithm I wrote then ordered these images into a ’dream sequence’ based on another AI called the natural language toolkit. This is an attempt to teach computers syntax and the ‘meaning’ of words. The sequences of one image blending into the next were based on what the NLTK thought were the most closely related terms, it was always trying to look for the shortest conceptual leap between Google’s image descriptions.

This was supposed to mirror the way some psychoanalysts think the subconscious is ordered like a language. These dream sequences were then drawn frame by frame slowly at night on the side of St. Patrick’s Tower with my laser while my camera took long exposure photographs. In the morning I’d get around one and half thousand photos back and turn them into a little minute long stop motion animations that would get posted back online and on big TVs at The Digital Hub, like the machine was remembering its dream in the morning. The images would look quite degraded and grainy in the animations, like the machines could only half remember what they’d seen or perhaps they just see things very differently to us.

Tell us about the tech specifically?

I used a 7W KVANT clubmax rave laser which is my pride and joy and my trusty Nikon D5200 camera which I’ve taken around the world and is really old but just seems to keep going. I borrowed my girlfriend’s D610 to get photos from a different angle but that broke down after less than 50,000 exposures which is a bit rubbish for a pro camera. The laser and cameras were all controlled by a c++ program I wrote with an API called openframeworks which sort of makes coding art installations a bit easier. The cameras were tethered to raspberry pies that used a program called gphoto2 to automatically take a photo when the main c++ program told them to, one of the pies was on the end of a really long ethernet cable in a little hut which was quite funny.

The images were scraped from Instagram using a python script I wrote with the Instaloader library, Instagram don’t like users scraping data or automating processes, so it was quite tricky, and you had to be careful how often you took a ‘sample’ of the typical Dublin posts, too many scrapes and you’d have your account shut down. I would then manually curate the images that had been downloaded and then trigger a second script that fed them to the GoogleVision AI and then used the NLTK to arrive at a visual “score” for each night’s laser show. I wanted the images to sort of blur, blend, and shift into each other so there was a fair bit of geometry bending and maths going on. The images were drawn in the camera using long exposures so if you saw it doing it at night, you’d just see these sparkles of random lights twinkling against the tower, but they all added up over ten to fifteen seconds to create images that looked sort of similar to the originals. There was something about deconstructing social media images back into pulses of light, like little packets of data, that I found really interesting. Like we were seeing how the computer sees just slowed down.

What were the most challenging and easy aspects of this project?

Ummm, it was a lot of code and I’d never done anything that complex with the laser. Also using lasers in public is quite a serious responsibility as you need to not shine them anywhere people could conceivably be in case you accidentally blind someone. The legal aspects around creativity and GDPR were also quite challenging. To be honest compared to the logistical problems of the project the code was the easiest part, I like writing code. Logistics and legal wrangling interest me less but they seem to be increasingly a part of my process.

Did you learn anything new or did anything surprise you?

I was surprised at the mistakes the artificial intelligences made, the Google AI would often mistake the objects in pictures for “packaged goods” particularly people’s fingernails. There were a lot of nail art posts in Dublin and Google thought they were packaged goods. I was also surprised by some of the conceptual leaps the natural language toolkit would make, things or terms or words that seemed obviously related to me just didn’t come together the same way in the computer. I don’t think that necessarily means computers are stupid or algorithms are useless, but it does demonstrate that just as there are limits to reason there are clear limits to machine intelligence.

What do you think – should we be fearful of algorithms, AI and machines?

I think they’re just tools, it’s up to the people in charge how they get used. You can use a hammer to build a house or smash someone’s face in. So, I suppose it depends on who’s using them and for what purposes, you can point to clear examples where AI has been used to filter job applications and has re-created the biases it was trained with and that’s negatively affected people. You could also look at when Facebook used their feed algorithm to try and influence the mood of different user groups and question if that was the most ethical use of algorithms ever. But then there are lots of positive effects labour saving and creative applications of algorithms and computers. I love tech, I spend most days programming computers and making techno on my Atari in my spare time. It’s a double edged sword. People shouldn’t be fearful but it’s probably wise to try and be informed about the hidden effects of technology.

What was the reception of your work by the Dublin 8 community?

I’m not sure, I met lots of nice NCAD students while I was installing and documenting the work and they seemed really interested in it. The last time I worked with The Digital Hub it was to show the ping pong table years ago in the pre-COVID world and we had a proper opening which was like a big party with wine. I conceived of this project to deliberately be possible regardless of restrictions and operate outdoors without an opening or ‘event’ that would bring people together but just sort of exist there so people could stumble across it as they walked past the hub. I was remotely operating it every day over the internet from wherever I was in the world, so I found it difficult to judge if really “landed” with the audience because I never really saw them. Whenever I was down doing maintenance, someone would be filming it on their phone, so I guess it made some sort of impression.

Bonus quick fire round:

You describe yourself as an inventor, amongst other things. What are the five essential qualities of an inventor?

1) an appetite for deferred gratification, its 1% inspiration 99% perspiration – most of the time the thing you’re inventing won’t work and is going wrong, you just have to keep problem solving till it does.

2) plenty of spare time, I built the ping pong table when I was on the dole. I think having a particularly busy full time job would be a real barrier to invention. Having an idea worth pursuing requires lots of time clear just for thinking and for not thinking.

3) curiosity. If you want to invent something, you probably need to be quite curious about how things work curious about how they could work differently.

4) a nice studio, workshop or shed to work out of. If you try and invent things at home your family, housemates or spouse may become distressed by the mess so having a space dedicated for your creative experimentation will help stop this.

5) a ruthless ability to make it pay. At some point you’ll probably have to figure out a way of getting paid for your inventions if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing professionally. This is quite tricky but if what you’ve invented has actual use or is really interesting or just quite beautiful then you can probably get someone to give you money for it. The art is in knowing when to take the money and when to walk away.

Who has most influenced your artistic practice or is there anyone you would you like to emulate?

Tim Hunkin is an amazing artist inventor whom I would encourage everyone to check out. https://www.timhunkin.com

What’s your favourite social media platform?

I’ve taken a break from social media for a bit. But I suppose Soundcloud feeds me new experimental music and mixes by DJ’s I’m interested in, so I suppose its Soundcloud.

What most excites you about technology at the present time?

Lasers, lasers were the future fifty years ago and they still feel like the future now. On a misty night or with the right haze machine they just feel like sculpting with light.

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