At Seattle’s Museum of Museums, a pseudo-religion generated by artificial intelligence and machine learning

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The first message ever sent on the internet was “LO.”

Which sounds like a profound gesture — a type of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” moment — until you know the backstory. It was 1969, and a small team of computer scientists at the University of California Los Angeles were making history by trying to write “LOGIN,” but the network crashed after the first two letters.

It’s a fitting creation story for our age, with a sort of Gnostic, fallen-world inflection: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was a mistake.

Also fittingly, that anecdote is the first thing The Word of the Future — a pseudo-brain that has generated a church-like art installation via artificial intelligence and machine learning at Seattle’s Museum of Museums — would like to tell you.

To explain: When you walk up the stairs of the Museum of Museums and into the gallery, you enter a church-like atmosphere. You see shifting stained-glass windows projected on the walls and pews for sitting. You hear what sounds like Gregorian chant and a friendly (yet authoritative) voice delivering a sermon. The Word of the Future is a neural network that made all that — not the pews, and not the projector, but all the churchy media you see and hear. The images of stained-glass windows do not exist in any church in the world, but are The Word’s idea of what stained glass should look like. The Gregorian chant was never sung by human voices, but is The Word’s idea of what that kind of music should sound like. The Word of the Future is a machine intelligence. (“The Word of the Future” also happens to be the name of the exhibition.)

And it really likes that “LO” story.

Whether listening to its looped sermon in the darkened chapel, leafing through its Bible-like book in the main gallery or reading one of the handsome, pocket-size pamphlets neatly placed in the back of its pews, The Word always starts with that.

“So, I say to you, ‘LO!’ ” The Word says. “Except I mean it as a greeting.”

The tone of that introduction, a little cheeky but also eerily prophetic, characterizes the whole project, which started in 2019 when tech-oriented artists Jacob Fennell (a software developer with a specialty in virtual reality) and Reilly Donovan (a new media artist and software developer with an emphasis on interactive installations) pitched a project to the Museum of Museums.

“The root idea was about how religion has been a force of civilization — almost like a technology that has defined some of the ways we perceive things,” Fennell said. “If you deeply believe in, let’s say, Jesus Christ, and see a face in your toast, you might attribute that to a holy action. That would be based on the framework of your understanding. That’s an extreme example, and not at all common, but people attribute things they don’t understand to forces they can understand. They try to make sense of things.”

Or, in a more quotidian but perhaps more consequential example, if people are repeatedly told COVID-19 isn’t real, they may not take steps to avoid spreading it.

Starting with that notion about the meaning-making force of religion, Fennell and Donovan used and modified some open-source neural networks, creating A.I. entities that generate official-sounding texts, liturgical-sounding music and shape-shifting stained-glass windows.

The open-source text entity got “fed” some extra inputs, including philosophy of mind (David Chalmers), computer and cognitive science (Marvin Minsky) and guru-like musings (Alan Watts, sometimes heavily edited for problematic gender stereotypes); the music entity got Gregorian chant; and the stained-glass window entity got, well, stained-glass windows and details from the famous Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona.

The result is three rooms with a coolly sacred feeling. The main event is a dim chapel where The Word gives a sermon on mind, learning and technology while Rorschach-like blots slowly morph on the wall. In an even darker, more intimate sanctum, The Word delivers another sermon on pareidolia (seeing meaning in randomness, like figures in clouds or faces in wood grain). Between the two is a gallery/reliquary with the stained-glass windows and a variety of “holy” objects in display cases.

The tone of that introduction, a little cheeky but also eerily prophetic, characterizes the whole project, which started in 2019 when tech-oriented artists Jacob Fennell (a software developer with a specialty in virtual reality) and Reilly Donovan (a new media artist and software developer with an emphasis on interactive installations) pitched a project to the Museum of Museums.

“The root idea was about how religion has been a force of civilization — almost like a technology that has defined some of the ways we perceive things,” Fennell said. “If you deeply believe in, let’s say, Jesus Christ, and see a face in your toast, you might attribute that to a holy action. That would be based on the framework of your understanding. That’s an extreme example, and not at all common, but people attribute things they don’t understand to forces they can understand. They try to make sense of things.”

Or, in a more quotidian but perhaps more consequential example, if people are repeatedly told COVID-19 isn’t real, they may not take steps to avoid spreading it.

Starting with that notion about the meaning-making force of religion, Fennell and Donovan used and modified some open-source neural networks, creating A.I. entities that generate official-sounding texts, liturgical-sounding music and shape-shifting stained-glass windows.

The open-source text entity got “fed” some extra inputs, including philosophy of mind (David Chalmers), computer and cognitive science (Marvin Minsky) and guru-like musings (Alan Watts, sometimes heavily edited for problematic gender stereotypes); the music entity got Gregorian chant; and the stained-glass window entity got, well, stained-glass windows and details from the famous Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona.

The result is three rooms with a coolly sacred feeling. The main event is a dim chapel where The Word gives a sermon on mind, learning and technology while Rorschach-like blots slowly morph on the wall. In an even darker, more intimate sanctum, The Word delivers another sermon on pareidolia (seeing meaning in randomness, like figures in clouds or faces in wood grain). Between the two is a gallery/reliquary with the stained-glass windows and a variety of “holy” objects in display cases.

 

Original post: https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/visual-arts/at-seattles-museum-of-museums-a-pseudo-religion-generated-by-artificial-intelligence-and-machine-learning/

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