Short film: The Centrifuge Brain Project (2011), dir. Till Nowak
New Zealand-based researchers have taught a computer-generated baby how to make faces, read, and speak— could the robot apocalypse really be this adorable?
"Adorable" isn’t the word I’d use. Not by a long shot.
"Baby X" is an AI simulation meant to mimic the learning of a human being through programming analogs for the chemical reactions of the human brain. Reading about the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory of Animate Technologies’ program and having a toddler of my own makes this especially strange.
Several questions come to mind:
- What is gained through programming a computer to simulate human learning?
- What processes are elided or simplified, as our understanding of neurological functioning is still so limited?
- How much does this “toddler” cleave to well-worn assumptions about learning and toddlerhood, rather than uncover the dynamic and varied ways in which humans grow and develop?
The last question is the one that I find especially important. If I’ve learning anything over the past year of parenting, it’s that you need to expect the unexpected. Yes, we know that children all develop at their own speeds, but what has been so surprising for me is the abstraction and near surrealism of the process; for example, one might expect a child to take a few tentative steps before walking, or eventually mimic words you repeat to them ad nauseum. The reality is that everything is nearly unpredictable - after months of rolling around and crawling, a toddler can simply stand up and run across the room, or instead of repeating that phrase you constantly use (“More? You want more? More? More?”) she blurts out a full phrase you didn’t expect, or worse yet, a word you use when frustrated. You greet your child in the morning with a happy “HELLO!” and he responds with a smile and then an unearthly growl straight from the depths of hell. Your toddler comes in for a hug with a huge grin, but as soon as she gets close enough to your face, bites your nose with those sharp baby teeth and jaw strength rivaling a pitbull.
All this is meant to highlight how computer “learning,” when meant to explore human functioning, reaches such a bottleneck in terms of our own understanding of neurology. Some of this can be gleaned even from the graphics used to create “Baby X” - while we congratulate ourselves on how “lifelike” our CGI has become, there still exists a very real, very noticeable gap in achieving something that we perceive as “natural”; eyes and teeth seem to be the dead giveaway, appearing too bright or wet, or simply off in some way that is yet indescribable. Baby X is no exception.
And here is where I can’t help but return to that last question, especially in terms of assumptions the researchers seem to have about toddlers: Why so white, so female, so willingly obedient and baleful? Why bother with all these markers of race and gender, and what are we to gain from a program that simply assumes these things? What is gained by a program that simply echoes back our stereotypes and assumptions? Is “Baby X” anything but a vessel for these elisions and errors?
[“Canadian Royalty: Their Lifestyles and Fashions,” Michael DeForge, 2014]
While Michael DeForge's comic, “Canadian Royalty,” is certainly grotesque in both concept and execution (high praise from me, by the way), it also outlines some interesting concepts in terms of prosthetic technological relationships and the intersection of the weird and science fiction.
[Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010) Dress; The Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2009–10 collection. Black duck feathers.]
Anyone familiar with the fashion of the late Alexander McQueen is aware of how fashion can be a sculptural art and central to avant-garde performance. Lesser known or recognized, however, is the part fashion design has in technological development. For example, Nicholas de Monchaux’s 2011 text Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo tells the story of how Playtex had a hand in creating the Apollo Missions spacesuit for NASA.
[Figures from Fashioning Apollo, outlining the development process from suits in the Smithsonian collection.]
In “Canadian Royalty,” DeForge treats us to a weird fictional account of the physical and social trappings of the Canadian royal families, including how they are encased in their fashion as part of monarchical ritual. As absurd as the account becomes, DeForge does an amazing job outlining a world that embraces fashion as not simply accessory, but necessary prosthetic, both for physical being and social standing. Monarchs are completely dependent upon their outfits to live, as they function as literal braces for their atrophied muscles. They provide proxies for their featureless faces (read the grotesque descriptions and appropriately bizarre illustrations for an explanation) and stand as social signifiers trumpeting their identities. The illustrations are fittingly bizarre, minimal in some places and baroque in others, and DeForge’s style serves the narrative brilliantly.
DeForge’s work and McQueen’s fashion serve as stunning, convincing examples of how clothing serves as technological prosthetic - not simply metaphorically, but physically. And for those unconvinced, claiming that these are singular, absurdist concoctions? Strap on a pair of high heels - any pair - and tell me that this is still the case. I dare you.
Pietà (Memento Maury) is a video compilation of clips taken from 200 episodes of The Maury Povich Show, filtered through facial recognition software programmed to search for faces resembling the Madonna’s of Michaelangelo’s Pietà. Copyright: Tiffany Funk
What can I say, I’m a…
Melissa Potter interviewed me for her absolutely fantastic Gender Assignment blog! Check it out - I even used the word “shibboleth.” I think I even used it correctly.
Have faith-based websites existed since the dawn of time? No, but their aesthetic has not changed since the dawn of the internet.
I wonder if this closed caption has been used by Fox News regarding gay pride parades. If not, then I think this is a missed opportunity. (#be the change!)
[Mork & Mindy opening credits, Season One, 1978]
Clearly it’s no secret that I’m a science-fiction enthusiast, but I don’t often get the chance to meditate on how it came to impact my personal and professional life. I spend most of my days researching art and technology-based topics, most of it dissertation-related, but there remains a fraction of time to indulge the child I once was with the sci-fi books and TV that lit the fire.
One of those sparks was Mork & Mindy.
The series is one of those anomalies that can only be explained by the strength of its actors - in this case, Robin Williams - and most certainly its producer, Garry Marshall. Originally a spin-off of Happy Days (!), Mork & Mindy was something of a dumping ground for the weirdest television references and crossovers, such as Mork’s “finger/thumb” battle with Fonzie, or Laverne and Shirley visiting and reminiscing about working-class Milwaukee.
But aside from the surreal wackiness, plot holes, stunt casting and derivative quality of the scripts after season one (Jonathan Winters as an Orkan baby?! Corey Feldman as Mork’s day-care buddy?!), it was undoubtably Robin Williams’ live-wire style of improvisation that caused the show’s initial popularity. In fact, casting Williams as an alien might have been the only way in which to introduce his style of manic comedic talent to television, much less a half-hour sitcom format.
As a very young child, I was mesmerized by Mork from Ork. That he was an alien was not lost on me, because let’s face it - every kid feels like an alien growing up, trying to get the hang of an adult world in which everything is too big, too awkward, too complicated, and too serious. Only now, in retrospect, do I realize that this might have been the first time I was privy to how science-fiction has the ability to strike at the heart of real problems and offer creative solutions not possible in more realism-driven dramas and comedies. Mork seemed a direct translation of how a kid might think to act on those pent-up fears and anxieties. Mork made us feel OK (“KO”) to mess up sometimes. (And when you messed up, it’s “KO” to yell “Shazbot!”)
Na-nu, Na-nu, Mork. RIP Robin Williams.