“Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI” de Young Museum / San Francisco by

by October 14, 2020

“Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI” has brought together some of the best of the current generation of contemporary artists engaging with artificial intelligence (AI). Curated by Claudia Schmuckli at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and organized in collaboration with the de Young Museum, this interactive exhibit offers a new way to look at AI.

In this show, the artists distance themselves from notions of imitation and resemblance that have long characterized the narrative around the relationship between men and machines. Rather, they reveal the problematic aspects of these interactions in a society that is increasingly a victim of overreliance on algorithms.

The “uncanny valley,” a hypothesis developed in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori and which analyzes the human emotional reaction to humanoids and robots that look almost human, is here revisited and tinged with darker notes. In an age when artificial intelligence has crept into many aspects of our existence, this uncanniness is now manifest in AI’s unnoticed movement through our lives.

The show raises more questions than answers, offering a visual translation of the new narrative that surrounds AI. While Agnieszka Kurant (Conversions 2, 2020) and Ian Cheng (BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018–19) critically approach the ways in which AI-based systems are designed and powered, tackling issues such as exploitation of human labor and collective intelligence, Simon Denny (Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage, (US 9,280,157 B2: ‘System for transporting personnel within an active workspace,’ 2016), 2019) draws a connection between technological work and the potential ecological disasters connected to the fueling of our digital ecosystem.

Trevor Paglen (They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead… (SD18), 2020) and Forensic Architecture (Model Zoo, 2020) focus on the consequences of misuse of AI-based technology, such as human rights violations. Hito Steyerl, instead, with The City of Broken Windows — an installation already exhibited at Castello di Rivoli in 2018 — investigates the impact of AI on areas such as social injustice and economic inequality.

Stephanie Dinkins (“Conversations with Bina48,” ongoing series) and Lynn Hershman Leeson (Shadow Stalker, 2019) center their works on gender, race, and identity, while the Zairja Collective draws visitors’ attention to the concept of mining at the level of both data and physical resources.

Finally, Martine Syms (Mythiccbeing, 2018), Christopher Kulendran Thomas with Annika Kuhlmann (Being Human, 2019), Lawrence Lek (AIDOL, 2019), and Zach Blas (The Doors, 2019) place importance on criticalities related to surveillance capitalism, corporate goals, and the distinction between human and artificial that is becoming progressively blurred.

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Beth Jochim