(L-R) Navid Khonsari, Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Ari Melenciano, and Rashaad Newsome talking tech. (Stephen Greathouse/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Veronika Lee Claghorn
A.I. seems to be a “catchall term for a lot of different tools,” as artist and technologist Amelia Winger-Bearskin suggests at the New Frontier: Let’s Rebrand Artificial Intelligence talk at the Sundance Film Festival. “Leave it to us in the film industry to be the first to notice what is movie ‘magic’ and what is in fact labor… The true magic is in storytelling, which is our craft,” says Winger Bearskin to the panel of technologists using their A.I. in groundbreaking ways.
In response, Navid Khonsari, a mixed-reality creator who has worked on video games such as Grand Theft Auto, says he prefers the term “machine learning” in his studio. He sees machine learning as a way to generate tools that help to tell stories that reflect the world they are creating.
Sandra Rodriguez, an artist and academic, agrees, saying that artificial intelligence can be a scary term for some. “The words we use to talk about a technology can be powerful and dangerous… We have been sold on this idea, that it is inevitable.” She feels that people have been made to feel fearful, but that it actually helps level the playing field in art.
Artist and creative technologist Ari Melenciano piggybacks on Rodriguez’s statement, saying that A.I. is culturally specific to Western people and merely a reflection of how people everywhere operate. “[This] is a socialized understanding of the world… It’s not to say it’s good or bad, but it is what it is. A lot of my work is computational anthropology, and one project that I did was upload a headshot of my face and add words like ‘smart’ [as descriptors].” Melenciano says the tool allowed her to better understand that humans have a lot of bias, especially when it comes to phrenology and phenotype, and as an artist, this excites her. As a creative, her favorite way to interact with A.I. is to input her artistic loves so that the output is more to her aesthetic and liking.
For Rashaad Newsome, the creator and mastermind behind Being (The Digital Griot), his artificial intelligence model replicates the thoughts and emotions of bell hooks (whom he calls his “North Star”) and Paulo Freire. “My interest in robotics came from thinking about them in relation to the history of African Americans. When African Americans came to this country, we were seen as robots, as tools,” says Newsome. He believes his griot allows conversations between people who have been impacted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where people may be less inclined to interact with one another. (His interactive work Being (The Digital Griot) encourages face-to-face audience member discussion with one another about how social constructs of whiteness and capitalism, for example, impact us all.)
“Where did punk rock go?” laughs Rodriguez. “[But seriously], these tools can be used to help artists in their craft.” Rodriguez says we can always tap into the machine’s resources to make sure our creations as humans are as realistic as possible. “What I mean by ‘help’ is an economy of time and an economy of means.”
Khonsari chimes in, saying that despite popular opinion, artists are needed more than ever to get involved in the mission of machine learning tools, as their insight and experience is invaluable. He warns that larger companies that are not being transparent are already plotting out ways to distance artists from the technological conversation, which would ultimately minimize and segregate artists.
“I think it’s important to note that no artist, no creative person ever creates anything [alone]. You’re always synthesizing and influenced by so many things,” says Melenciano, offering the example of Dominican music that her family listens to. She describes it as a mix of African and Spanish sounds, such as we are mixes of our preferences and experiences.
“Ultimately, my hope for A.I. is that it helps us get back to ourselves.”