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One Artist’s Search For The Soul Of Google’s Artificial Intelligence

Merijn Bolink uses one of Google’s machine learning apps to create a traditional sculpture that represents the onset of AI.

What does Google see? With its machine learning algorithms, the company’s various tools and apps can identify people, places, and things–even if you’ve just drawn a bad sketch.

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Google’s Eyes, Merijn Bolink, 2016. [Photo: Hein Hage]
Now, an artist has used Google’s sharp machine vision to create a piece of IRL sculpture. Starting with a ceramic replica of a half tire, the Dutch artist Merijn Bolink took a photo of his creation and uploaded it to the Google app Goggles. The app uses machine learning to identify the subject of a photograph, and if it doesn’t know, it offers 20 similar objects or interpretations. Bolink initially thought he’d let the app decide on the other half of the tire, but he was struck when it thought the tire was a human jawbone. He decided to create a separate ceramic sculpture of the jawbone, and repeated the process again, selecting a human hand out of the 20 options Goggles presented him with. He continued to repeat the process until he had 20 different objects.

Called Google’s Eyes, the sculpture is now on view at the Science Gallery Dublin, where it’s part of the exhibition Humans Need Not Apply, which closes on May 21st. With the 20 gray, ceramic pieces arranged in a line, they almost appear like muted children’s toys. But the method by which they were created–through Google’s machine vision technology and Bolink’s image curation and skill with ceramics–tells a different story.

Bolink likes to take apart objects and put them back together in unusual ways. In Google’s Eyes, he’s attempting something similar. “I usually take things apart, in thousands of really small pieces, and I reconstruct them,” Bolink says. “I’m always hunting for the essence of things.”

The work is also an attempt at taking a snapshot at the state of technology currently. “There’s so much and so speedy development in that area. It’s really hard to capture, it’s all on hard disks,” he says. “And I’m afraid it’s vanishing at some point. I decided to freeze certain things in ceramic in the hope that they’d stay for a very long time.”

Google’s Eyes, Merijn Bolink, 2016. [Photo: Hein Hage]
That ended up coming to pass. Since he created the work while in residency at the European Center for Ceramic Arts in 2016, Goggles no longer offers up the 20 interpretations of an image–instead, it will either deliver its answer of what the image is in word form or not at all. “Freezing that was actually really meaningful,” he says.

Bolink only recently became interested in the potential of artificial intelligence, and the work is also a reaction to its continued rise. “I’m thrilled by the idea that AI is going to take over everything,” he says. “But right now it creates such a beautiful mix of philosophy and poetry. I compare it to a child that’s just learning to speak. It creates these funny sentences, but sometimes they contain the truth.”

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Möbius ring correctes, 1 original drawing, 9 drawings copied from Pinterest boards, 2017. [Image: Merijn Bolink]
In Google’s Eyes, some of that poetry comes in the juxtaposition of the different pieces of the sculpture. For instance, one sculpture of a wedding hat cake, a symbol of marriage, contrasts sharply with a cross missing one arm, which Bolink interprets as a message of death. Another is a Hebrew letter, that transforms into the Latin letter “A”–a subtle commentary on human language and culture. The last sculpture in the series is an infinity sign. “Every single one of them had a lot of meaning,” he says, pointing out that it was the computer choosing the selection of 20 images, that were then curated by him. “Who is doing the association, is my brain, or is it the virtual brain?”

Bolink recently completed a similar project, using Pinterest and drawings. He first uploaded a line drawing of a distorted Mobius strip to Pinterest, then searched for similar images, selected one, drew his own version of it, uploaded to Pinterest, and continued the series from there. He said that his goal was to find his way back to a Mobius strip–and the last image in the series is a perfect drawing of one. “It looks like a new way of thinking that’s very complex,” he says. “I feel a little bit of prophecy in it.”

He believes true artificial intelligence will arrive in the next 10 to 20 years and hopes to use his art to document its unfolding. “I’m really searching for its spirit in a way,” he says. “I want to be first to witness it.”

 

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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