AI at the Barbican: not so bright after all

MakrShakr cocktail robots: AI More than Human

AI: More Than Human is a new exhibition at the Barbican which promises an unprecedented survey of creative and scientific developments in artificial intelligence, and if we’re prepared to stretch our understanding of the term AI to encompass sculpture and images generated by neural networks, mythical creatures made of animated clay, geared mechanisms that encrypt messages. and anthropmorphic cooking tools then it certainly delivers.

The Curve exhibition space is so packed with artefacts, artworks and artificiality that it begins to overwhelm the visitor. It’s not surprising that one of the exhibits, programmed to tune in to faces in front of its camera, was apparently distracted by the images on the screens of other exhibits, as they are only partially hidden by the gauze screens that separate this rich and complex collection of thematically and chronologically ordered artefacts.

Alter 3 Robot: AI More than HUman

Alter 3 Robot: AI More than HUman

The Alter 3 robot is not alone in being not knowing where to look. As I walked through the space I was constantly distracted and diverted, turning from screen to object to interactive exhibit as I wondered exactly what story was being told here.

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Self-Sabotage and Self-Care

Holding my laptop

Towards the end of Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters there’s a confrontation on top of Spook Central, and after the ghostbusters have all been blasted away by Gozer/Janine, Winston turns to Ray and says in an exasperated tone: ‘Ray…when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!’

Ray…when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!

It’s the same with your subconscious. When you ask yourself if you’ve had enough, it’s a good idea to say ‘yes’ and do something about it. A clear message from the bits of your mind that don’t get to hold the attention baton very often should be attended to, because they have to work hard to get through to the systems that get most of the limelight, and so it is probably important.

And so it was for me this week.

I’ve just spent three days trying so hard to sabotage my work pattern that I would be a fool to disregard it, and yet it was only in the middle of a WhatsApp chat with Ira Bolychevsky that I realised what I’d done. I thought I was being careless, but in fact I was sending myself a very clear message.

And the message is: you can’t carry on juggling like this.

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Slouching Towards the Silicon Foundry


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s sixty years since CP Snow gave the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University (May 7 1959) and talked of the Two Cultures, and ten years since I gave a fiftieth anniversary commemorative lecture at the Computer Lab in which I discussed my own model of the new 10(base 2) cultures that define modern world.

I argued then that today’s fundamental division is not between science and humanities but betwen those who understand computational thinking and those who don’t.

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I Declare a Data Emergency. #DataEmergency

Cables on the Underground

Because we need usable data to help us address our global crises.

We’ve had the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency. We know that the planet is changing as a result of human activity over the past two centuries and that the resulting conditions are unlikely to be amenable to the continuation of human civilisation or – in extremis – our species, along with several million others.

The earth will be fine, of course. We’re not going to topple into the sun or kill the magnetic field or do anything that will stop our planet circling the sun without us for a million or billion years. It’s just the fragile biosphere that seems likely to change rather significantly for the worse, at least from our perspective.

In the space where I spent most of my time, the space in which we tend to assume a future in a hand-waving automagical sort of way, where we speculate about the impact of low-latency ultrafast 5G networks and ML systems sophisticated enough to emulate certain features of biological intelligence, we have our own emergency, but so far we’ve been reticent about naming it or calling for unified action. Perhaps it’s time.

So I’ve decided to declare a data emergency, alerting us to a state of affairs that could end up doing significant damage to our chances of retaining a viable biosphere with enough species to sustain the food web we rely on, as well as turning our dreams of online utopia into a surveillance nightmare of social control, societal breakdown and individual misery.

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Using Archives to Challenge Misinformation


I was asked to speak at a conference around the importance of our cultural heritage, organised by Louise Broch from Dansk Kulturarv and taking place at the offices of DR in Copenhagen.

My title was 

Using cultural archives to challenge ‘fake news’

And the outline was:

 “Those who control the past, control the future; and those who control the present, control the past.” 

Seventy years after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s observation remains true and relevant – but it does not have to be read as a testament to the power of autocracies. 

Instead we can treat our access to and use of cultural archives as an important tool in pushing against misinformation and ‘fake news’ in the modern world. We can use our ability to shape our access to the past for good, if we choose to. 

The Talk

This is the text I based my talk on. 

A view of the DR offices walking from the metro

First, let’s get rid of the term ‘fake news’. It has been appropriated by a number of politicians, most notably the President of the United States,  to undermine good journalism and try to damage people’s belief in the news they read.

As Claire Wardle from First Draft has argued very strongly, the term ‘fake’ is cannot cover the many different types of misinformation(the inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation(the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false), and it also taps into a whole narrative about the ‘mainstream media’ that is designed to undermine and damage the credibility of journalism. 


As a journalist myself I’d rather not be part of that process. 

So let’s try to avoid ‘fake news’.  

If I had the choice I’d probably revert to two old-fashioned words to describe the stuff we see shared online: liesand propaganda– but I’ll accept misinformation and disinformation as useful working categories.

So here’s our question, restated: what is to be done to limit the disruption, oppression and political impact caused by mis- and disinformation? And how we can use AV archives to counter deceitful content in all its rich variety?

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Fake Reality: beyond fake news

Air Quality in London, May 1 2019, Perhaps.

This is what the air quality in London looks like as I leave for Cambridge at the end of another day, and it’s not too bad. Except that this isn’t a picture of the air quality at all – it’s a visualiisation provided by the CityAir app on my phone screen, interpreting data from a sensor network and representing it as geodata overlaid on a map, with a colour coded scale designed to be easily interpretable because it follows a normal western convention.  

There are no numbers, but it’s green (the colour of nature!) and I feel slightly reassured that I haven’t poisoned myself too much on the bus from Savoy Place to King’s Cross.  

I could be fooling myself. It could be that there are toxins there that are simply not detected by the range of sensors available to CityAir. In fact, in the case of a chemical attack it’s highly likelly that CityAir would show all green as there would be no  cars and buses in the area because of the ensuing security alert.  

So this image isn’t ‘real’ in any sense except that it’s useful to me. However since the same could be said of my entire sensorium and the mental models I build of the world on the basis of the sense data I gather and interpret, I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand.

I’ve always had a problem with the term ‘virtual reality’ because it carries the implcation that there’s  a ‘real’ reality that it replaces.  And since I already augment my reality with the spectacles that make this screen readable I’m not sure why the augmentation provided by light field manipulating digital technologies should get sole use of the term.

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