Nicole He's new absurdist AI project is maybe her most intellectually coherent yet - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Mar. 27, 2017 3:38 pm

Nicole He’s new absurdist AI project is maybe her most intellectually coherent yet

The NYU ITP artist shows some of the ironies of the hype surrounding the tech world.
The computer’s input.

The computer's input.

(Photo from The Best Art)

Brooklyn technoartist Nicole He unveiled a funny and thoughtful new project Monday morning which flips the script on the master-slave dialectic of humans and our software servants.

It’s called The Best Art, and the way it works is that He’s computer — using artificial intelligence and machine learning — polls the universe and generates an art project. Then He executes it.

He’s posted a couple examples of the process at the-best-art.computer. For one of them, the computer’s instruction is to “make a frying pan that reminds me of a black void.”

He executes this remarkably well, creating a GIF of an unsettling, never-ending loop zooming in on a black frying pan with a smaller frying pan in it.

The human's output.

The human’s output. (Image from The Best Art)

Another of the projects, which made me laugh out loud irl alone after seeing it, came with the instruction, “produce a domestic surveillance that feels blank” paired with a human output of a small, cheap looking, black webcam sitting on a black shelf, facing a white wall.

He, who is finishing a degree at NYU’s ITP program, is not a novice to lighthearted critique of the tech world. Her previous pieces include an unfamiliar cat petting simulator, a Twitter account of her house plant growing in real time, a videogame controller made of lollipops which are activated when you lick them and, our personal favorite, the True Love Tinder Robot, which takes biometric information of your response to people on Tinder and decides which way to swipe. Truly, one of the great pleasures of writing about the Brooklyn tech world is being able to follow Nicole He’s work.

The conceit of all or most of her work is to have an exaggerated premise for a new technology which fails to deliver, in a funny and charming way. The tech in the True Love Tinder Robot decides how to swipe basically just on how much your hand sweats looking at people on a crudely designed machine. If you were looking for a revolution in how we pick our mates in a more natural way … it’s underwhelming. If that leads you to a comparison with consumer products which claim to enhance some area of life by replacing human cognition with machine’s, then that’s no accident.

So, too, is the message with The Best Art. Machines, in their superior artificially intelligent processors, with algorithms built to not be susceptible to the vagaries of our emotions and limited experience of the world around us, is given the place of artistic director, one of the highest applications artificial intelligence could achieve. The lowly human, good only for our thumbs at this point, becomes the studio assistant.

It sounds good, except that it’s so preposterous. Here is He’s instructions for how the computer comes up with its creative impulse:

The computer’s algorithm produces a number called the Art Index. The Art Index is determined by a number of factors in the universe, including the time of day and weather, how many times the president has tweeted that day, how close the International Space Station is to the computer, and the computer’s horoscope. (The computer is a Gemini.)

The computer also generates a machine-appropriate large number of project ideas, which are run through a sentiment analysis program to generate a rating. The computer then matches the current Art Index to the project that is closest in rating, thus determining the best art for the current state of affairs in the universe.

The results, of course, are random. And if they have meaning, such as the domestic surveillance that feels blank, they do only due to the irony of the process by which they were achieved.

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