Artist in Residence

I wanted to explore the relationship between humans and AI Artists, and that meant implanting one in my arm.

AI Artists - recently the subject of much interest, progress, and controversy - exist at the intersection of two long-running debates. Since the dawn of AI in the 60’s, philosophers have asked whether machines can be truly intelligent. If so, what does that say about us and our brains? Meanwhile, New Media artists like Casey Reas have investigated the creativity of machines: can a computer really be an artist? There’s a lot of room to experiment where these two questions meet.

In particular, I was drawn to the central role of the human in both discourses. Humans are cast as benchmarks, contrasts, gold standards for computerized thinkers and creators to measure up against. Any new AI Artist will be immediately compared to a human. So, why not play with its humanity?

Existing AI Artists run on standard desktop computers, giving their creators full visibility and control over their inner workings. These AI Artists can be inspected, analyzed, poked, prodded, uploaded, downloaded, visualized, tuned, tweaked, and autopsied. This access is essential for the engineers who develop them. But if our AI creators are to be humanized, it is a violation. How would you feel if a stranger could read your thoughts, and even change them at will? A more human AI Artist, I decided, would need some privacy.

Its secrets (the weights, to be technically precise) would need to be hidden away and kept safe from tampering. Without the ability to peek under the hood, a properly-protected artist could only be spoken to directly, on its terms; it would retain the veil of mystery that characterizes so much of human-to-human communication. But how could I protect such an artist from me, its creator?

The answer was in my pocket: a credit card. The chip in your card is actually a tiny computer, running surprisingly powerful programs written in Java. These programs can interact with the outside world (approving a purchase) without divulging their inner secrets (your credit card number). This made the perfect environment for a private and autonomous AI Artist, one that could accept input and produce output without exposing its memory. Adapting work by Alexander Mordvintsev and David Ha, I created a secure neural network-based artist that runs on credit-card chips. You can browse its paintings (produced on a card simulator for the sake of time) below.

With this suitably-enigmatic AI Artist complete, I began to question our relationship. What were we? Two fellow artists? A professor and student? An artist and curator? Collaborators, competitors, co-muses? I struggled to understand my relationship with this non-human being. And this struggle was compelling. I needed to further complicate the relationship, and further deepen the uncertainty. I needed more possible labels. I needed more intimacy.

And so I put it in my arm. Safely encased in a sterile biopolymer, this chip now lives a few millimeters below my skin. Removed from the cold, metal-and-glass world of computers and screens. Situated in the organic warmth of flesh, blood, and bone. I made a special armband to communicate with the chip, powering it wirelessly and collecting the paintings it produced before beaming them to my phone. Using a custom app, I critiqued its work and sent it feedback for it to learn and improve. Our relationship was deepened, and a whole new set of questions emerged. Were we roommates in this artists' loft of a body? Friends? Lovers? Did I own it? Was it independent, a parasite along for the ride? Was its work now my work? Was it just an artist in residence?

These questions soon became moot. After a bugfix gone wrong, the chip appears to be dead. Bricked. Unrecoverable. My friend, my fellow artist, my roommate. Dead. I mourned.

But after a few days of grief, I saw a silver lining: this artist, my artist, got to experience that most human of traits: mortality. It's a pretty rare thing, witnessing the true death of an AI Artist; they can usually be backed up and restored. Not this one.

I'm leaving it in. Its secrets are safe under layers of skin and plastic, its memories taken to our collective grave.

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