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PREVIEW: Editorial Occulto 7: Art-I-Ficial

Preview from Occulto 7: Art-I-Ficial, out on October 10, 2020, preorder here

Artificial is, in one of many possible definitions, something “whose source is not biological evolution but technological manufacture.” This simple statement presents us with several questions. Even if we temporarily suspend the issue of (re)defining what technological manufacture is beyond inadequate man-made connotations, the trouble is that natural and artificial, provided they exist as discernible categories, have been mixing with each other for ages on our planet. Spider webs are at least 100 million years old. The oldest evidence of hominin use of tools dates back to over 3.5 million years. I guess the resulting tangled mess partially explains why this “artificial”-themed Occulto issue, despite a deliberate focus on artificial intelligence, starts in the deep sea, features many plants, and ends with an identity crisis.

The materiality and labour behind the internet infrastructure – too often pictured as an ethereal network of blueish light beams jumping around the globe – is rendered vividly in a story between oceans and clouds, told in verse, prose, sound, images. Art and science observe and explore together the behaviour of trees and other plants in controlled experimental conditions, discovering more and more about their surprisingly subtle and dynamic ways of perceiving their environment and adapting to it, and radically questioning common assumptions and science paradigms about the vegetable world.

AI could be described as a model of natural intelligence, which is, in turn, something we have limited and disputed knowledge about. The term model is understood here, following Morgan and Morrison’s view, as an autonomous mediating tool that can play an important role in the production of knowledge and technology. Any new story about AI must work its way through a jungle of interdisciplinary literature, and cross the quicksand of techy fetishism and technophobia. A possible approach with such difficult topics is to start by looking at the names of things, wondering where they come from, what they seem to imply, how their meaning may have changed in time.

The irresistible temptation to create artificial versions of what we consider typical human features, and the many fears and desires such attempts invariably unleash, hasn’t been limited to intelligence: voice is another prominent example. A historical roundup on speaking machines reveals a two-and-a-half-century story of visionary inventions where human physiology meets analog automata and digital companions.

The potential of AI has been tested first and foremost on natural language and vision, ranging from the search for the ultimate automatic translator to computer poetry contests, from image recognition in the style of Facebook to software that makes a “painting” of Stanford’s Hoover Tower in the style of van Gogh. A parallel can be established between what a specific type of language processing software is doing to words and what deforestation is doing to trees and their wood, while another kind of software can be fed thousands of botanical illustrations and pay homage to the original artists, nature and life by creating new species and artworks within instants.

Finally, what’s more artificial than our own individual self, especially now that a few corporations are exposing it as composed for the most part of a dataset that – besides being full of contradictions and things we forgot or regret – can be effectively treated with quantitative methods, obtaining an overview on us that introspection alone is unlikely to ever get close to. Should we laugh or should we cry, should we stay or should we go? Occulto is not watching you, but you can read it.