What is the role of the arts in AI?

What is the role of the arts in AI?

UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #4 - What is the Role of the Arts in AI?

Representation, Novelization, and Prioritization

At UKAI Projects, our exploration of AI arose from an initial engagement with the creative and cultural sectors. This first happened in Canada and has since expanded to workshops, publications, and offerings in Switzerland, Mexico, Germany, the United States and Japan.

The arts are often invited into conversations of social and ethical concern. Too often this can serve to provide cover for activities of uncertain ethical value (see Boston Dynamic and its partnerships to normalize its Robot Dog and the artistic responses underway to this). Or artists are brought in late, to improve an offer’s aesthetics or to more firmly ground it in conversations around culture.

Artificial intelligence will create profound disruptions in how the world is organized and artists and other creators will need to become active participants in exploring these technologies and drawing attention to their implications. Mikhail Bakhtin explored a similar tension in the post-revolution Soviet Union between a world that aspires to be ‘finalized’ and the always ‘open’ act of living in these worlds. He argues against the idea, "that every motive in contradiction with the official ideology must degenerate into indistinct inner speech and then die out - it might well engage in a struggle with that official ideology and... if it is not merely the motive of a déclassé loner, then it has a chance for a future and perhaps even a victorious future.” While many of us might run the risk of being a déclassé loner, collectively, the arts can and should play a central role in a struggle with an official ideology, one that takes as a moral virtue the ideas of growth and efficiency.

Algorithms have been designed to deliver agreeableness, an aesthetic of comfort and monotony. Yet, in general, an aesthetic demands a kind of reflective judgement, a contemplative distance. An aesthetic of the smooth asks nothing. Renaissance painters were famous for the colours they made. Increasingly, we select from the same mass-produced colours and shades. The aggregated data about the behaviors of billions is used to predict our future decisions and tastes, guiding us toward profitable choices in service of efficiency. Our past actions will determine the facts of our future. We are witness to the gradual automation of aesthetic decisions.

The Role of the Artist

The Conclusions of the Expert Seminar on Culture, Creativity and Artificial Intelligence in Rijeka, Croatia in October 2018 point to the importance of arts and culture in the conversation about AI.

Relevant conclusions follow:

  • arts and culture are an irreplaceable means of expression of the human genius
  • arts and culture stimulate active engagement and creativity in citizens and hence diversity in production, against the odds of a global cultural standardization and homogenization
  • human idiosyncrasies, as well as broad cultural diversity, are all under increasing pressure to homogenize under globalized economic circumstances. It is imperative to understand the deep logics of cultural production as a basic human activity in order to have more realistic expectations of the advancement of AI
  • arts and culture are key vectors in generating the necessary social intelligence and emancipation to accompany new life practices marked by increasing human-machine interaction
  • arts and culture need to be part of the dialogue about the information society
  • arts and culture provide essential contributions to the deliberations about our common technology-influenced future
  • many artists and artistic collectives are active in the field of AI and technology, focusing their attention specifically to incubating functional alternative models of various social and democratic processes. That space is seemingly the only laboratory for genuine social innovation and AI and it deserves serious attention and support

Algorithms play an increasingly central, and invisible, role in producing our economic, social, and political lives. This literal invisibility is a result of proprietary laws and regulations, the complexity of solutions, the processes by which they are created, and the speed that algorithms act and learn. There is no “place” to confront AI and so we must map out its implications through the squint of experts and disclosures.

Intangibility and ubiquity contribute to a sense of anxiety and many voices have emerged to proselytize AI’s benefits or caution against its excesses in response. Access to the tools to create AI or uncover their effects are tied to privilege and so it is unsurprising that despite an explosion in interest and concern around these technologies, the dominant voices, including artists, represent Western concerns and approaches.

Artists, particularly in the West, have explored approaches to imagining, representing, and narrativizing implications of artificial intelligence, with a particular focus on facial recognition, search engines, and financial trading. Most discussion about and creative expression using AI is built on theoretical and ideological principles, particularly the ethics that should underpin policies and public interest in the deployment of these systems.

We see an opportunity to support the shift from rationality to relationality in the AI ethics conversation. Through dialogic processes and dialogic outputs, multiple subjects can bring their unique and intersecting identities, ontologies, and epistemologies into relationship and provide new ‘facts’ to promote collective sense making about an issue of profound importance.


The metaphors used to explain artificial intelligence are very much extensions of the assumptions that went into constructing these systems. So, for example, by so closely associating AI with a disembodied brain as the centre of cognition, other ways of thinking about form and function are elided.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer. In 1946, the ENIAC was unveiled to the public. Newsreels called it the world's first giant electronic brain.

In 1948, the MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener published a book called Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, in which he compared the nervous systems of living things with the automatic control systems of machines. A 1952 essay, "The Education of a Computer," offers that "it is the current aim to replace, as far as possible, the human brain by an electronic digital computer."

The speed by which the brain and a Western understanding of cognition came to organize AI research is remarkable. This is a critical area of exploration for artists and creators in AI. Ferment AI is currently working to extend the metaphors available to understand these systems. Two specific examples are outlined here:

The Intelligence of the Liver: We are currently developing approaches to organize around the liver’s intelligence in an evolutionary context and discuss how this applies to the design of AI systems. We will also explore the liver’s symbolic, biological, and evolutionary role in both tacit and explicit contrast to the brain. Specifically, we want to inquire into how a liver solves a problem by performing its biological functions and responding to evolutionary pressures. This will also take into account the role of regeneration and the diverse levels of information-processing available to researchers.

Lichen and Mutualism: Lichen is an organism arising from the combination of algae or cyanobacteria and filaments of multiple fungi species. The relationship is mutualistic rather than competitive, and highly effective, covering an estimated 6–8% of Earth's land surface, including highly inhospitable environments. Lichen have developed strategies to create mostly self-contained miniature ecosystems. What might an algorithmic system look like modeled on the slow, entangled processes of lichen? How might scale be re-imagined based on the strategies evolved in lichen over time and across an astounding range of ecological niches?


Bakhtin held that acts of communication, or utterances, are collectively constructed. An ‘author’ articulates their values in the world through language or another act of creation. This act can then be understood as a region of uncertain governance with various parties making claims on the act and what it ‘means’ and there is an ongoing negotiation that is never finalized. New audiences bring their unique and specific experiences to the work and the process is renewed. Forces will push to make official ideologies ‘final’ and individuals will push back to keep meaning ‘open’. Algorithmic systems increasingly demand that human agency be minimized in service to overall efficiency. Attempts to keep systems ‘open’ are threats to their operation. The artist, then, must serve the role of dialogizing or novelizing sociotechnical systems, thereby refusing being cast as an ‘object’ in the story being written by the AI’s owners. How might different values be articulated in dialogue with automated decision making? How might art support the recovery of the ‘subject’ in systems that too often demand objectification of human beings and the natural world? When automobiles first became common, pedestrians were dying at alarming rates. Unaccustomed to the speed at which automobiles operated, pedestrians would engage with the world in ways they had become familiar. There was conflict and disagreement about what automobiles ‘meant’ and eventually legislation was introduced to criminalize pedestrian offenses. What similar fate awaits those that intentionally or inadvertently interfere with the AI’s operations?


The arts are uniquely positioned to evolve and select new priorities based on changing conditions in the world. The Conclusions of the Expert Seminar argued that the arts are, “incubating functional alternative models of various social and democratic processes. That space is seemingly the only laboratory for genuine social innovation and AI and it deserves serious attention and support”. While the arts has certainly seen a 40-year trend toward internalizing the moral positions of capitalism, it remains uniquely positioned to explore approaches and themes that are not defensible under the existing official ideology. The arts can declare that certain historical or social factors require deeper consideration and the work can then follow to elaborate on this declaration.

Organized by the World

The arts offer opportunities to reflect on how we are organized by the world. Dance, painting, theatre, and literature all serve to draw attention to how we move, see, interact, and make meaning. Algorithmic culture is already shaping how we are monitored, predicted, and influenced in our daily lives. We believe that the arts can play a central role in drawing attention to the underlying experiences of AI and provide frameworks for applying machine learning and responding to systems that ask us to behave as objects.

We need a polyphony of different voices describing the underlying experience of AI and imagining other applications that bring us closer to the world we want to live in. To do so will require literacy, democratization of tools, and a willingness to be in dialogue with the status quo. Introduce yourself in the comments and share why you’ve become a part of this conversation.

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