Curator Suzanne Livingston on where AI will take us in the future

Barbican Centre

AI: More than Human curator, Dr Suzanne Livingston shares her insight into the ideas behind the Barbican exhibition and what visitors can experience and learn about AI.

What are the deeper messages of the exhibition?
"The deeper messages of the exhibition are about this conversation between East and West - an Eastern conception of the self and technology and a Western conception of the self and technology. My co-curator Maholo Uchida is from Tokyo so she brings with her a completely different perspective on technology, AI and robotics. In Japan, there is a culture based on the ancient Shinto belief system and according to that belief system objects are not inanimate in the way that we see them in the West. In fact inanimate objects are believed to have a soul or a spirit of their own called 'kami'. According to the Shinto tradition, humans are much more comfortable with living in a world where objects are seen to have a kind of life. There is a view that this why Japanese culture is more receptive to robotics. It is a culture more at ease with humans taking their place in a much bigger interconnected system with many different forces at play. They are more accepting of a world where they live alongside objects, where technology might have a life of its own. The exhibition is underpinned by some really big ideas - we're looking at the interaction and evolution of humans with machines. We look at humanlike qualities within technology and also how technology integrates itself into the human. It’s very much about the merging of the two and the evolution of who we are and what we are. The exhibition also examines where the phenomenon of AI comes from and how is it shaping our lives. And questions where AI will take us in the future?"
What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
"I hope people feel a real optimism for the future and a sense of ease. From my perspective there's a great deal to be excited about in terms of the future of artificial intelligence. In our part of the world at the moment there is a great deal of anxiety and fear in the media. Some of this is justified, and some of it in my view isn't. We want people to feel that there's an awful lot of good that's going to come from artificial intelligence for us in the future. And also that they need not feel passive. They can actually play a part in shaping the future. In fact, it's very important people stay attuned, informed, vigilant, aware, interested in this subject so they can work out how to relate to it and how to take part in it. We have to be conscientious and aware about how we're engaging with media and how we're buying products. We have agency. But there is a future about to happen and we can help shape it and I think it's going to be a great one."

"There's a great deal to be excited about in terms of the future of artificial intelligence."

What role do you think AI plays in society today?
"There's so many different aspects to AI in our society today, the most positive are really in the area of social impact and solving some of the world's biggest problems - or at least beginning to solve them. That might be climate change, disease diagnosis, drug discovery, food production in parts of the world where food production is a challenge, education. All very big questions that we need to address for ourselves. We see huge leaps in terms of AI being able to help us with the big social problems of our time. But there are negative aspects to AI, two of which we've focused on in the show - racial bias and gender bias in data sets. Joy Buolomwini's work is very much focused on that, and really engages us all in that question about what we can do about it. The other big issue is about the distortion, the manipulation of what we might call truth - or objectivity. And the worst form of that is fake news. And this is obviously very disturbing for our sense of democracy and the choices we make. These are issues that we have to know about, we have to engage with, we have to work out our relationship to - again we can't become passive in relation to that and be very, very aware about the path we're taking through it. We're hoping that people can become aware of what they can do about it."

"We see huge leaps in terms of AI being able to help us with the big social problems of our time"

How has AI's role in society evolved?
"AI's role in society has evolved in some significant ways. Until this point we've really only seen AI being used to solve specific isolated problems but as we go forward I think we're going to see AI as a much more global, interconnected system, almost a sea of intelligence in which we exist, all of the time. Like a world brain. And that's going to change our daily interactions and daily experiences profoundly. It's something that we'll be drawing from and uploading to continually. For me, it's a positive thing because we'll have this layer of intelligence that will give us so much more insight about behaviour and help us solve problems on a continual basis. I can see that some people might find it scary - but I can see that will be the big shift, from solving the big problems to a much more interconnected system."

"I think we're going to see AI as a much more global, interconnected system, almost a sea of intelligence in which we exist, all of the time."

AI is so unknowingly intertwined with our lives, but Western attitudes towards it are often negative; why do you think that is?
"This is a really interesting question. In the West we have a conception of the self which is quite closed, a closed entity - top down, in control, rational, autonomous, often the highest of the evolutionary tree. This means that we are very resistant to change and we can become quite competitive. Some people talk about AI, our fear of AIs, as a fear of the other. I think that’s a useful analogy. In the East, with the belief systems like Shintoism or Daoism, which is where quite a lot of the inspiration and the content of the exhibition comes from, the self is a less closed off idea, it's much more interconnected with a wider set of forces. There's much more acceptance of human's place within that wider world. A less human centred view of the world, if you like."
What would you tell those who have a fear of AI?
"It’s a really easy time to be fear or misunderstand AI – there are so many dimensions of fear in the world at the moment, and AI is another huge dimension of change. Over the last few years during my research I've seen a huge spectrum of opinion in terms of how close we are with singularity – or artificial general intelligence (AGI) -  which is the moment where computer intelligence is seen to outsmart human intelligence. This is often the source of the fear - that we will lose control. That somehow AI will dominate us. Some people feel that that's in the foreseeable future and others feel its generations away. My view is that we have time, we have time to take our place within this period of change, there are mistakes within our society that we have to address before AI really becomes all the more fundamental. And for those that might feel fear, I think there's two things to remember - stay informed. The best way to address fear is to stay informed. Engage. Engage with the subject, find out more. Find out how you want to relate to it. And the second thing is a degree of acceptance I think is very important. We're on a planet that is about change and humans haven't been here that long - we might not be the centre of that planet forever and that might be something we have to accept. If you’re feeling anxious about the future, find out about it."

"We have time to take our place within this period of change"

Where can we see AI being used for good in the exhibition?

"In the exhibition there's plenty of examples where AI is used for good. We have two pieces from MIT, one by Dina Katabi which is an incredible piece of technology combining AI with WiFi. It's designed to monitor people through a wall in a care environment, or perhaps the elderly living at home, and that piece of technology can monitor their vital signs, monitor their walking patterns, even detect the pattern of disease. It's an incredible use of AI for good, for care.

Another MIT example is the work of Regina Barzilay, she’s working on AI and oncology. Her technology is designed to detect tumours decades ahead of the time when they might be detected today.

Other examples, and there are many, an amazing example from Amnesty International using AI alongside satellite imagery to detect destruction to villages in Darfur. It’s an open source project that many people can get involved with to help understand and track the destruction to Darfur.

With Jigsaw from Google, AI is being used to prevent online abuse in forums and chatrooms. Whilst we might fear technology itself as it comes into our life, that project actually shows how incredibly negative and destructive human beings can be! And it's just a good reminder. It’s a project designed to make those forum environments safer and take abuse out of the equation.

Another amazing example of AI, in terms of the fabric of our lives, is a piece from Sony Farm, which is an AI driven farm to enable to production of food to improve agriculture in environments where it might be difficult to produce food."

What does the future hold for AI?
"The future will be enormous for AI. I think what we'll see is more merging and blurring of the lines between technology, humans and nature - what we call the natural world. Whatever that might be and the definition of that is changing. We'll see that we are going to be part of a much bigger interconnected system. And that is going to really require us to really open up our idea of the human in profound ways."

"The future will be enormous for AI."

Credits: Story

Dr Suzanne Livingston has spent her career researching and questioning the entwined relationship between humans, culture and technology and the philosophical consequences emerging from that. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, Suzanne has worked across sectors in technology, arts, museums, education and business markets. Suzanne received her PhD in Philosophy from Warwick University and is a founding member of the influential Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). She continues to write collaboratively on technology, belief systems, innovation and evolution.


AI: More Than Human is a major exhibition exploring creative and scientific developments in AI, demonstrating its potential to revolutionise our lives. The exhibition takes place at the Barbican Centre, London from 16 May—26 Aug 2019.

Part of Life Rewired, our 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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