Is Artificial Intelligence Going To Save Or Enslave Us? Barbican Looks At The Benefits And Threats Of AI

AI, Barbican ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 28 months ago

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Is Artificial Intelligence Going To Save Or Enslave Us? Barbican Looks At The Benefits And Threats Of AI AI, Barbican 3
The immersive and brilliant TeamLab installation. © TeamLab Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

How is Artificial Intelligence (AI) going to change the world? Will it free us from the burden of having to work so we can live in a cultured utopia, or will it enslave us all like The Matrix would have us believe?

Barbican tackles one of the biggest issues of our age with a major exhibition about the history and future of AI.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear distinction as to which items on display are the result of AI, and which stem from other improvements in technology. The line may be blurry but separating the two would have allowed more focus on the core questions around AI in this exhibition.

Feed a word into this work by Es Devlin and it will construct a poem and overlay it on your face. © Es Devlin Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

A letter from the Future of Life Institute — signed by Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking— insists on a ban on autonomous weapons (those that can fire and kill without human intervention), and is a hugely important document. It’d be easy to believe that autonomous weapons will never become a reality… until the exhibition hits us with the fact that our government is already working on them — have they never seen Terminator?

Microsoft's chatbot Tay — which had to be switched off after a short exposure to the Internet turned it racist — also features. The problem stemmed from the machine learning from us humans, suggesting that maybe the problem is us, not them. An interesting thought, but there’s no time to mull it over, as the narrow Curve gallery space has been filled with an overwhelming amount of things to look at. Tackling big philosophical issues isn't easy when assaulted by an aural and visual cacophony. Throw in some low lighting and the labels become hard to read — we know we’re getting old, but it shouldn't be this hard to find out what we’re looking at.

This digital artwork dominates the hallway outside the Curve gallery space. © Chris Salter in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Despite the overwhelm, there's still plenty to recommend in this show including a host of interactive elements. A game pad can be used to wander round Lawrence Lek's satirical virtual environment — a futuristic Barbican complete with Union Jack carpeting.

Try your hand at the difficult task of moderating comments on a website, something that’s already being handed over to AI in some cases. Elsewhere, a machine that mimics human movement is the creepiest thing in London right now, and gives off a guttural mechanical scream that sounds like the death throes of the T1000.

A driving simulation that responds to your facial expressions. © Affectiva Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

TeamLab's immersive installation is easily missed, hidden away in the Pit underground, but every visitor should see the inspiring waterfall of Chinese characters on the wall. Once touched, they trigger rainbows, hatching butterflies and the occasional thunderstorm. It's a magical art installation that would be easy to spend hours in, and a welcome meditative escape after the intense main exhibition.

So are the machines going to kill us all or save us from our own self-destructiveness? Ultimately it's up to us and how we programme them — so we’d better start dedicating more time to discussing the thorny ethics of AI. Gen up at Barbican and launch into a much more interesting dinner conversation than Brexit or Game of Thrones.

AI: More than Human at Barbican Art Gallery until 26 August 2019. Tickets are £15-17.

Last Updated 17 May 2019