Ian Cheng is feeling lost. It was early 2013; he was almost 30 years old, with a degree in arts from Berkeley and another from Columbia, but he needed an idea, something to build a career on. Reflecting on the question on a winter afternoon in the balcony cafe at Whole Foods Market on Houston Street, a place that promises to see people watching and “you have time,” he finds himself absently looking at shoppers. Shop below.
He is growing exponentially. The market is a small ecosystem of its own, with clear rules but still an element of chance. Someone’s dog won’t behave. A guy is sneaking food from the salad bar. Everyone doubles back to get a plate. An idea began to form in Cheng’s mind, another based on his other major at Berkeley, which is cognitive science. His thoughts run to complex systems. Outstanding behavior. And what if a video game engine could…
Today, eight years later, Cheng is an internationally known artist who has used artificial intelligence and video game technology to explore topics such as the nature of human consciousness and the future. that we co-exist with intelligent machines.
That future is exactly the subject of his latest work, the 48-minute “narrative animation” – please don’t call it a movie – currently showing at Luma Arles, the new art park in the south France. On September 10, it was also announced at the New York Warehouse. Titled somewhat confusingly, “Life After BOB: The Chalice Study,” it is a commentary on the potential of AI to disrupt your life.
Cheng’s followers will recognize BOB from previous exhibitions at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea and the Serpentine Gallery in London. That BOB is a virtual creature, an artificial intelligence called “Bag of Beliefs” for short — a subtle dig, perhaps, in early AI researchers who thought they could. Program a computer with everything it needs to know. His new work is the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chalice and her father, Dr Wong, who invented the BOB and implanted it in her nervous system at birth to guide her as she grew up. .
Like the rest of Cheng’s work, “Life After BOB” is brainy, tech-focused, and informed by cognitive psychology, neuroscience, machine learning, and AI – concepts concepts like deep learning and artificial neural networks, underpin the advances that have brought us Siri and Alexa and facial recognition software. “He is one of the most radical artists working with digital technology today,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine. Alex Poots, Shed’s art director, concurs: “It’s not like an add-on – the technology is in the DNA of the piece.”
Cheng himself is a quiet, intense 37-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles, the only child of people living in Hong Kong working in graphic design. He and his wife, artist Rachel Rose, were expecting their first child when he started developing “Life After BOB” a few years ago. When we met for coffee near their Lower East Side loft, he explained, the anxiety it created turned out to be pivotal.
“I just thought, what can I do that will make me the worst father possible?” The answer, he decided, would be to combine his work with parenting. “And that’s Dr. Wong’s main fault,” Cheng said. “He thought giving her a BOB at birth would help her achieve, not just a success, but a fulfilling and meaningful life.” So Dr. Wong conducts Chalice Research, an AI experiment with his daughter guinea pig. In the end (spoiler alert), Chalice herself must decide whether to take control of her life.
There was a live stream from Cheng’s Whole Foods show to “Life After BOB,” starting with a series of pieces that carried some variation of the title “Entropy Wrangler” and were made using Unity, a tool” software designed to simplify the task of video game development. Consistency allows him to emulate the kind of behavior he’s used to seeing at Whole Foods – except that instead of people wandering around the market, he can now hurl pots, blocks, etc. , a monstrous hand, a dilapidated office. chairs, and other objects in a state of frantic, endless motion, never stopping, never repeating. “Entropy Wrangler” is a real-time cartoon in which the same thing never happens twice.
Cheng then introduced the characters into his animation and gave them goals. The first installment of this series, “Emissary in the Squat of Gods”, revolves around a young girl living in a primitive community on the slopes of a long-dormant volcano. She realizes that the volcano may be about to explode – but will the villagers notice? (Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.)
Cheng may have engaged with such questions as a cognitive scientist, but he is not interested in an academic career. He once said: “I think of art as a permissive zone. “An area in culture where you can explore the present and cannibalize the past with relatively little supervision.” This puts him in a much more exclusive grouping: “He is now one of the great artists of his generation, doing work like no other,” said video artist and performer Paul Chan. , who hired him as an assistant very early on.
With “Entropy Wrangler” and his “Emissary” series, Cheng has created works of art that can do something unexpected in response to the interactions he puts in motion – something scientists do cognitive learning called emerging qualities. His next work, “BOB,” is not merely unpredictable in this way, but is also said to be perceptual: a near-intelligent computer program that assumes the form of matter is a giant, red, ever-changing, identical creature behind the glass wall. There’s not just one BOB but many, and when they debuted at the Serpentine in 2018, visitors had a completely different experience.
Some find a particular BOB to be charming and personable. Others it will ignore or forget. Obrist recalls: “The gallery was something of an animal sanctuary. “BOBs survive and thrive at every hour of the day.” And then, “about a week after the BOB program, we got a phone call in the middle of the night.” The creatures were supposed to sleep when the galleries were closed, but one of them woke up at 3am. Code has been corrected; it never happens again. But still.
“Life After BOB,” which will be shown at Shed next month, in a show hosted by curator Emma Enderby, is commonplace by comparison. It features anthropomorphic characters, an AI character that’s just a cartoon, and a beginning, middle, and end. It also benefits from Cheng’s latest interest, which he calls “globalization”. People in the entertainment business call it world-building – creating complex settings for open-ended stories that fans can immerse themselves in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Westworld.”
Unlike his earlier works, “Life After BOB” does not exhibit prominent behavior. The animation is streamed, where the game engine generates it new for each view. But it follows the same script unless Cheng rewrites it (often). The innovation comes after visitors have viewed it, when they can switch to another screen behind and explore Chalice’s world with their smartphones. They can do many of the things you can do with your TV’s remote control – pause, rewind, replay scenes – but because the animations are created in real time and not played back like a video, they also You can click on an object, change the camera angle and zoom in to explore details.
This was inspired by the reaction Cheng received when he read Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” a classic children’s picture book, to his 2-year-old daughter, Eden. was not born when he started doing this. Work. “She knows the story inside and out,” he said. “And now when she looks at it, she goes to the caterpillar in the tree and she says, ‘Dad, Eden come in! Eden come in! ‘ She wanted to go into the tree. The caterpillar eats a small hole in the apple and it wants to get into the apple. It’s like she wants to immerse herself in the details of the world because she’s already transformed the story. “
The interactions with his daughter brought back countless memories. “That’s how I felt as a kid and I watched ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner.’ Oh my gosh – you want to live in that world because there’s so much out there. “It’s as if you’ve seen the movie in the x and y dimensions,” he continued, “and now you want to go into the z-axis – you want to jump into the movie. And like, she made that clear to me. “
That’s not possible with a book, of course. The best Cheng could do was touch the apple in the book and then touch her daughter’s forehead. Even that making her giggle with delight. “But I thought, wow, what if I could give it to my daughter? “Because her imagination is there” – if only technology were.
Frank Rose is the author of the book “The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World”.