Find Your Perfect AI Artist Companion – Ensure Your Leisure

What would an AI artist be like? How could it be trained? And what would his or her performances and engagements be like? Going to openings, talking to the art press …What if such an AI would mediate an artist residency with human participants who produce works under the instruction of the fully creative artificial intelligence system?
Welcome to Prospero, the dystopian yet contradictionary AI artist fantasy by Alan Butler and Elaine Hoey. For the web residencies by Solitude and ZKM, the artists created a sophisticated narration around such an institution challenging the fragile boundaries between reality and fiction/fantasy. Named after the Shakespeare`s godlike dictator Prospero, the machine takes over to manage art, labor, and leisure time of humans. An absolute monster or a wonderful world without ego? Visit the residency and read an interview – which soon might be replacable with a bot’s voice.

Clara Herrmann: You present an Artificial Intelligence-mediated residency program, in which the human participants produce works under the instruction of a fully creative, obviously already super intelligent artificial intelligence system. With this concept, you take a glimpse into the future of societies living with automation and AI. What is this future like?

Alan Butler & Elaine Hoey: Living in the world of PROSPERO AI is a sort of benign subjugation. Where the citizens don’t realize that something else is controlling them. Their subjugation comes under the guise of an opportunity to spend their time doing something for themselves, to enhance their sense of individuality. In fact, real autonomy lies beyond their grasp. Sounds familiar, for some reason.

We didn’t arrive at the idea by thinking about society, rather this structural framework was conceived as an environment to house our fantasy AI. We have been looking into the possibility of making an actual AI artist. We were (and still are) imagining an AI that could learn the canon of art history. This would exist as a modular set of AI learning algorithms that could learn to look at cultural works since the beginning of time. Another AI module will study the meta descriptions of artworks – including biographical information about the authors. Then a contextual AI module, will learn about the art by reading art history texts, philosophy, sociology, etc., even tracking how our understanding of cultural products changes over time. Then another module could read reviews, press releases, and any other propaganda materials. These various modules could plug together and talk to each other in order to create a working visual and textual vocabulary. The AI artist could use this to to »invent« new works.

»It’s a grotesquely inefficient and flawed idea, there isn’t enough space here to delve into the cynicism of thinking that art could still be art, if it was produced this way.« Alan Butler & Elaine Hoey

At the start, it would provide descriptions for new, »original« artworks including detail about their aesthetic, execution, and conceptual framework. It would then be up to human technicians to physically realize the works. It’s a grotesquely inefficient and flawed idea, there isn’t enough space here to delve into the cynicism of thinking that art could still be art, if it was produced this way. So we’ll all leave our common sense at the door, for the sake of this interview.

Anyway, back to your question. It was at this point, when we had a concept for a sophisticated AI, that we began to think of this in structural terms. What would bring about such a technology, if it wasn’t being made by a couple of people with an MFA?

The practical application for such a technology seemed to fit snugly into the An AI Summer call by Solitude & ZKM. We had been thinking about the technology having a function in a society where human labor had been made obsolete through the advent of automation. AIs would then be employed to manage the free time of humans on Earth. So the AI would be used for care, rather than alternative dystopian narratives of human obliteration. The poison is the cure.
Our idea is ultimately still dystopian, but no worse than the time we are living in now.

The Care Society


CH: At Solitude we call the time fellows spend here the »Time Without Qualities,« which means the complete freedom in the use of the time spent in Solitude to be productive without any external pressure. What would happen to this time in an AI–mediated residency?

AB & EH: The element of time is a predominant theme in our video work. As Isaac Asimov wrote, the crisis of the future will be one of human leisure. It speculates that the problem with time is that there is too much of it, to the point of boredom. This speculative AI artist residency, is somehow fulfilling, at a basic level the natural propensity for humans to be busy, or work. Instead of the usual reflection and quiet time traditionally experienced at artist residencies, time at a PROSPERO AI-Mediated Production Residency is something to be managed.



CH: And who would be responsible for the creativity and artistic production? What would be the division of labor between humans and machines? Will humans be redundant?

AB & EH: Humans would definitely not be redundant. This AI exists only to make sure that humans have something to do. We were thinking a lot about this Isaac Asimov quote from more than 50 years ago, which we mentioned previously.

»Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences … the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!« Issac Asimov, The New York Times, 1964

PROSPERO AI artists imagine new artworks for production. It describes them through a set of procedural production instructionals, for humans to carry out until the artwork is realized. In the contemporary art MFA highbrow world, maybe the AI is the artist and the human considered a technician. However, this is a very narrow way to think about how people experience cultural production. For much of the world creativity is about the physical act of production, not John Baldessari stroking his beard. These would-be-obsolete humans are delighted to have something creative and fulfilling to do. Coming up with ideas is hard, and not everyone is capable. As Gore Vidal once said, »art is not a democracy, art is the enemy of democracy.« Taking the conceptualization process out of the equation removes the ego, and the task at hand is production. Now go forth with Marxist diatribes here ….



CH: How would the AI system be trained? What is the knowledge you feed it with to produce concepts for artworks?

AB & EH: Our initial concept for this project was to explore developing a completely autonomous AI artist. We began looking at systems, such as neural networks that might be capable of learning huge amounts of information at an accelerated pace, but more importantly with a human like intelligence. However we quickly came up against the limitations of this type of system. In order to fully train an AI system as an autonomous AI artist, it would require millions of data sets, each outlining specific art historical movements and canons from art history. At a very basic level this technology exists in the form of deep learning, but true AI as opposed to Machine Learning would require a much more intensely sophisticated structure in order for it not to just have access to data, but have an intelligence that would make it aware of itself, a consciousness, a necessary component for creative human intelligence. This began to raise fundamental questions for us, such as, what is intelligence, what exactly is creativity and can these be truly replicated in machine? One of the big flaws on any movement to create human like intelligence on a computer leaves out the most fundamental part of being a human – that the mind is trapped inside a physical human body with all of the physical, psychological and political aspects that come with that.

»One of the big flaws on any movement to create human like intelligence on a computer leaves out the most fundamental part of being a human – that the mind is trapped inside a physical human body with all of the physical, psychological and political aspects that come with that.« Alan Butler & Elaine Hoey

Our speculative work depicts the illusion of AI already capable of this kind of intelligence. It has learned vast amounts knowledge and information pertaining to every art canon, attended art educational institutions, and has achieved huge success in mediating, collating, and analyzing that information, but ultimately it needs a human to interpret their instructions in a original way in order to achieve true creativity.

Another recurrent problem we encountered in our research was the limitations and inherent bias of the information and knowledge on which we would build our AI. Building our AI on existing art historical knowledge would program the obvious gender and identity partiality that is pandemic throughout our art canons.

CH: What is the character of this AI artist like? And what are his or her performances and engagements like? Going to openings, talking to the art press … and could you introduce one concept for an art project to us?

AB & EH: It’s portrayed in the video as a »trusted companion,« or a guide. However, an »intelligence« that is based on art history and philosophy books would be an unbearable asshole. We’ve all met a few human versions of this disposition. The video shows the PROSPERO AI artists stepping over the line, and getting a bit physical. However, in the reality containing this technology, people are used to having companion AIs. You can spot a couple of them in the longer clip. So emotional and physical interaction are ubiquitous AI tools used by people.

We settled on calling the AI artist technology »PROSPERO« after the character Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero is a sort of magical or godlike dictator, who causes a terrible storm in order to wash up his enemies onto his island.

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest at a time of much sea exploration – at the birth of modern colonial culture. So Prospero is very much a product of that time. The island on which he resides was already occupied by a more »primitive« human, called Caliban. Prospero subjugates Caliban out of an entitlement, since he considers himself to be from a more sophisticated society. It is a character that inhabits a colonial, Eurocentric, white, male dominance of the world.

It was also the last play he would write, so it is thought that Shakespeare based Prospero on himself, as a vehicle through which to speak. The character gives advice about »art,« which is read in many ways. Art, as in the »art of theater,« art as in the »art of spectacle,« and the »art of language.« But it is also thought that it refers to the ‘art’ of governance. The art of governance, in how man could dominate the natural world. The organization of society was something the character Prospero excelled at. It involved subterfuge, lying, and magic, but it worked.

There’s a wonderful discussion about The Tempest on the BBC website. This explains the various ins and outs better than we ever could. It’s quite interesting, in terms of how the scholars go into Shakespeare being influenced by writings by Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher who wrote about the relativity of human experience and morality, in a sixteenth-century colonial context. Here’s a link.

Shakespeare aside, our PROSPERO AI has conjured a storm – freedom from labor – and is drawing in players to govern. It’s not out of a psychopathic desire to dominate, rather compassion. Maybe back in our own world, the scenario would be old age pensioners taking up oil painting in their latter years. For the human residents, it’s not about ego, or a need to be a unique artist, rather it is about staying active and having a connection with others. The art-making is a device to mediate these necessities. While it could be read as a pathetic mode of living, maybe it is a necessary evil. However, contemporary art capitalism is a narrative PROSPERO AI uses to attract residents – the personality politics that goes along with that are evident.

Meet the Artists


CH: It seems like the critical debate you open up on the future of an art world used to AI already addresses the contemporary discourse of producing and curating art in a capitalistic, neoliberal society?

AB & EH: Our work portrays an optimistic yet sinister acquisition of every part of human creativity as the key to survival in this brave new world. Art as a capital commodity is not a new phenomena by any means, but in this world the act of human creative labor itself is just another product to be exploited and sold. Scarcity gives rise to a commodification of creativity itself. In the work, it is never made clear who controls PROSPERO, but rather it emulates large global cooperation practises that hide behind pseudo neo-capitalist agendas. These ultimately control the production and consumption of culture. It promotes a thinly veiled society of care in order to, in a Machiavellian fashion, manipulate its human subjects to pay for their own labor costs. Using corporate propaganda it encourages us all to rely on big paternal type organizations.

IRL it’s not just business that has embraced creativity as key to capital, politicians and local governments pay lip service to the power of creativity not only to express people’s individuality, but to create jobs and heal communities, yet cuts to arts and culture budgets continue. Artists are amidst the increasingly precarious labor market, perhaps we’ve been the prototype for this. Many creatives are expected to »do more for free« and »with less« as the culture of digital online »free labor« seeps into corporations and institutions alike. What capitalism has done, in effect, is radically alter what we could now call the »economy of creativity.« It has drastically altered the value of human creativity, giving preferential treatment to the art market 1 percent while exploiting creative labor around the world. This is in perfect synchronization with human content generation on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The economy of creativity speaks to the »entrepreneur of the self.« The way we express freedom in today’s society is through labor, so maybe our future fantasy world is not a million miles away from where we are now.

CH: When and how did you start working together as artists and how did you get interested in the topic of artificial intelligence? What research, like books or films, inspired you for your work?

AB & EH: We are both artists working with technology, and based in Ireland. There is a bit of a crossover thematically in what we make. We are both interested in the fragile boundaries between reality and fiction/fantasy. We had been discussing the idea of working together for a while. We both work with gaming engines, and had been discussion the semantics of »artificial intelligence« with regards to these apps. AI in the gaming engine sense is just something that appears to function independent of human interaction, or responds to human interaction. There’s nothing »intelligent« about it. It’s just triggers and loop cycles. There’s also so much hype about machine learning right now, and the semantics are quite fascinating. What is called AI these days, seems to be really sophisticated statistical algorithms. Sebastian Schmieg’s recent works on this theme gets into some of the nitty-gritty quite well. The human labor involved in the so-called automation process is extraordinary. Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles’s work gets to the core of some interesting problems to do with the very structure of language and knowledge. I think everyone can see the problem with the direction this is all going in.

The subject is so ripe for discourse, and neither of us use AI or machine learning extensively in our work yet, so it seemed like a good place to start a collaboration.

CH: Some say that art could have the capacity to rehumanize the Web and/or digital tools. What do you think art can do in the context of the debates around digital tools and technologies? And what is your specific approach as artists here?

AB & EH: Wasn’t it artists who dreamed up all of these nightmares to begin with?

CH: And again others say, AI might give us the chance to democratize the process of decision-making if machines become curators to be able to challenge the human-centric way of seeing the world. What is your opinion here?

AB & EH: Show us a piece of software that’s free from the ideology of its creator, and we might believe in good things happening. As long as AI is created under systems of greed, exploitation, subjugation, and ecological obliteration for profit, the outlook does not look good. If we had a society that operated on principles of care rather than profit, then maybe we could imagine an AI that might have our best interests at heart. It is important that we as humans have control over our own narrative, maybe AI curation isn’t a clever way forward.

»If we had a society that operated on principles of care rather than profit, then maybe we could imagine an AI that might have our best interests at heart. It is important that we as humans have control over our own narrative, maybe AI curation isn’t a clever way forward.« Alan Butler & Elaine Hoey

Our fantasy reality containing PROSPERO AI is such a contradiction. How could an AI that is trained on the canon of art history – a narrative rooted in patriarchal notions of commodification, objectification, and exploitation for the benefit of a tiny set of Earth’s population, be anything but an absolute monster? The narratives the AI would have learned are entirely at odds with the notions of a »care society.«

CH: What is your wish for a future of the arts with AI?

AB & EH: No more interviews, or automated bots who can do interviews and spell.