Unit 2: Future of the Mind – Telepathy context / research / my work

One of the things that captivated me following the initial group ideation session we had around Futures, was the notion that technology could progress such that not only human-computer mental interfacing was possible, but human-human, i.e. telepathy (the communication of ideas/thoughts by means other than the senses).

The idea of telepathy first caught on in western culture in the 19th century, following on from the spread of spiritualism (communing with the spirit realm/the dead) and animal magnetism/mesmerism (whereby healing can occur via induced trances and hypnotism). These pseudosciences caught on in response to the fantastical advances in science that were making the world at once more understood and more mysterious. Why should we only trust our senses if there are microscopic cells (with cell theory – that we are made up of cells – only being formulated in 1839), and if time can be relative (theory of relativity in 1905).

Hilma af Klint was interested in spiritualism, and can also be credited with the first abstract art – exploring automatic drawing in attempts to visualise this non-visible reality. I encountered some of her sketches in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and enjoyed how naive and free they seemed, some of which are below. The nesting and interaction of colourful organic forms, and looping, swooping lines also appeal.

Magicians then, using biological cues, performed ‘thought reading’ stunts, which still continue to this day. Indeed, much of the trends seen in the 19th century reared their heads again during the New Age in the 1970s, e.g. the idea of ‘channelling’ spirits or the collective unconscious via trances to gain new information. This took a strange turn as documented in the book and film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the American military hoping to harness the power of psychic agents for intelligence-gathering (and also, bizarrely, attempting to harm or kill psychically)

This idea of psychic ability being used as a weapon or military advantage is also explored in fiction, e.g. in Star Trek with the Vulcan mind meld appearing in it’s first season, and then later too with empaths such as Betazoids and the hive mind of the Borg. The notion of ‘hacking’ or mind control of another by means of such interfacing is a central theme of fiction such as Ghost in the Shell. This relies too on the notion of interconnected technological knowledge and AI systems within a ‘cyberspace’ – a concept conceived before the internet by William Gibson in his Neuromancer novel, but now a term used to refer to it.

But for me, I am interested in the consequences of such technology. If we were able to communicate telepathically, would this make language redundant? Would we lose language, particularly in our more intimate relationships? This could be a means in which telepathy could be a force for good, and answering a central human desire to be understood – enabling us to fully intimately understand and know our romantic partners and significant others. But what might be lost from our current relationships, and would this be a destructive or positive change?

There is a unique mode of communication already in existence between romantic partners, a secret language you only use within that context – formed of in-jokes, pet names, and particular phrases or patterns of speech that you build together. In a world where you could communicate without language, this would be defunct. I explored some ideas for how we could record these future dead languages, to house in future museums.

Below is a work I encountered in an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, curated to explore a post-language society (here conceived as a post-apocalyptic eventuality). The work below explores communication through a personal visual language, which are curious, but I’m unsure if they truly communicate (though perhaps they are recognisable to a native spanish speaker!) – it’s intriguing to see here again colourful, somewhat organic forms appearing.

Returning to my idea… The thought that these languages would be shared, which previously have been intimate and private between two people, is intriguing but one which made me feel unsure I could in good conscience ask people to share with me openly. This is interesting in itself, that I would hesitate to do so. That making open and shareable something entirely private is similar to this notion of sharing our inner most thoughts with others via telepathy. It is certainly an uneasy future being imagined.

What then could be more private than our own sense of self, our inner eye. What might it mean for our perceptions of self, if we can be fully aware of how others perceive us, and view ourselves through their eyes? Would this exacerbate or destroy the current situation of ‘selfie culture’ – whereby we feel pressured to curate our online image to the extent that our bodies, our lives appear perfectly manicured (whether doctored through photoshop or filters or not), and the comparison of ourselves to the online image of others is damaging to our mental health. The obsession with picturing ourselves in any and all situations can be seen as narcissistic and superficial, but it reveals our humanity too. Our desire to understand ourselves, to fit in and be understood by others. To mark our place in the world, and confirm yes I do exist. But this conflict between our inner world and how we appear externally is hard to process – and body dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.

Experiment with a selfie feedback loop using the webcam on my computer and my phone

I very rarely take selfies of myself. My profile picture for several years on Facebook has me in sunglasses that obscure much of my face. This is not out of a particular desire to be unknown, or undocumented. I admittedly do see flaws in my appearance, and suffer that horror when you accidentally have the camera facing the wrong way when you turn it on on your phone. So I never spontaneously feel the urge to do so – to take a selfie feels contrived for me, though I understand it can be different for others! I was interested then to explore this possibility, of the complete knowledge of my appearance to others, and engage in a process that exposed me more than I would usually be comfortable. To invade my own privacy.

To do so, I recorded my appearance in a typical evening at home with my fiance. By attaching a head-mounted GoPro to him, I hoped to approximate his point of view and gain this notion of the self-image through someone else’s eyes. Below, I edited together only those moments when I was in frame. It provides a disjointed account of the time spent making dinner, and the conversation appears surreal.

The camera angle feels like I am floating above myself – as though in an outer-body-experience – which I suppose this is! It is disorienting how it jerks around according to his head movements.

Future Self-Portrait

It is uncomfortable seeing so much of myself in a video, to see less than flattering angles and lighting. Much like the confusion when hearing your voice on a recording (how it never sounds quite as you hear it in your own head), it seemed strange to see my idiosyncrasies – mannerisms and facial expressions – played out in front of me. I feel vulnerable in particular when seeing how my eyes remain closed sometimes when talking – something I am unaware of doing in the moment. Also – I seem so short! In all I think this was a successful experiment.

Unit 2: Future of the Mind- Thinking about the Future research/my work

Here are some musings I had around the future. It is intriguing to me how futures have this dualism, being at one point something within and outside of our control. The knowledge that there are infinite possible futures can be both empowering and bewildering. But then the notion that our futures are already decided, or not within our power to change, is similarly fraught.

Anxiety is commonly to do with concerns and worries surrounding future events (whether immediate or distant), because of imagined negative predictions. The uncertainty of what will occur in future events means that we all predict to some extent what to expect in order for us to effectively plan for that event, whether our brain is reliably doing so or not is a matter for mental health professionals. But it is intriguing for me this planning and prediction, and fear of the unknown.

I thought it could be interesting to explore this prediction/imagining of the future through some questions posed to my peers, to see how differently they might all be doing so. I chose to create a questionnaire with suitable ambiguous and open-ended questions in order to do so. I also wanted to ensure I was accessing their personal future, rather than a prediction about humanity, which could rely less on their own personal prediction than something they have read elsewhere. So I chose to play with the dual meaning of ‘where are you going’ as in a physical or spiritual location. A destination that can be self-determined by the respondent. Below is an example of a response to my questionnaire.

Recent trends which have addressed this anxiety (which we are told is on the rise) include mindfulness, as well as the popular pursuit of yoga and pilates. These all bring us back to Zen buddhism practices, which I was reflecting on previously.

observation and being seen (how not to be seen video)

I think it could be interesting to create a set of instructions for navigating the unknown. Not only in terms of the map making that I have explored so far with the grid, but also in the other ways we make sense of the world, and how we might go about getting to know the unknown, e.g. stories, histories, signs, rules, rituals etc.

This would of course follow on from the instructional works I saw from Yoko Ono, which I have since discovered was also used by other artists such as Brecht, and more recently there was a collaborative work with various instructions by artists called Do It.

I also saw this fascinating and amusing work by Hito Steyerl called How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File at the Tate Liverpool gallery. It provides a series of instructions for how to avoid being seen, and takes it’s name from the Monty Python sketch.

I find the voiceover particularly fascinating – it reminds me of the robotic voices of assistive AIs such as Siri, but also sounds like it has been distorted or slowed down, slurring. This reinforces the ridiculous nature of the film, which I enjoy.

In a similar vein, I have drafted a set of instructions for navigating unknown spacetimes. The intention is that a person should act out the instructions whenever they find themselves in a place that is unknown that they would like to become familiar with, to help them navigate this anxiety. I have sought to make this similar to the mindfulness meditation exercises commonly shared. For instance, a suggestion on this website is to meditate while washing up:

Savor the feeling of the warm water on your hands, the look of the bubbles, the sounds of the pans clunking on the bottom of the sink.

verywellmind.com

Apparently this form of meditation is proposed by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh! I love how this everyday experience has been transformed into something transcendental and spiritual from mere instructions on what to focus your attention on. Something so simple but seemingly world-bending, while doing a mundane chore.

Below is a download link to a draft of my instruction leaflet.

I intended to try and cover the different ways humans go about getting to know or make sense of places (indicated by the different chapter titles), and imitating them so that I could create a set of actions that could capture this in miniature, to readily turn an unknown place into one you are well-acquainted, or in fact intimately knowledgeable of. I think this achieves this (though I or some willing participants will need to test it out!). I have also managed to work in my learning about grid cells and how the brain ‘maps’ the world, by including instructions for moving using a hexagonal pattern. What I feel I have lost though from the examples I have looked to, is this sense of humour and nonsense… though some of the actions do seem odd, I don’t think they go as far as to be funny. I like though that the framing of it as for ‘conscious agents’ and ‘spacetimes’ implies for me that it could almost be a future person, or alien person discovering a wholly new place and time, though it remains open to interpretation.

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – Grid Cells Interaction

I was keen to explore how the grid cell pattern, once ‘unveiled’ within the world, might disrupt people’s movement. I was also eager to understand the nature of future as unknown, and something we can only imperfectly plan for.

In order to capture this, I decided to ‘disrupt’ space that is usually transitory in nature, and might see a more predictable mode of transport across it. I laid out a grid of post-it notes on the floor of a corridor in the Art school, choosing intentionally one that is a little unusual, for having uneven floor, a partitioning rail, and small staircase, as well as obstacles such as a fire extinguisher.

Participants were first asked to plan their route across the grid on an exercise sheet I provided. I intentionally did not provide a scale or inform them of the side of the grid they would enter first, or reveal the location of the grid within real space. Once they had drawn this, I brought them to the end of the corridor where they would approach the space and let them do so unassisted.

Example of instructions and planned grid interaction
Video of participants engaging with the grid space

Following their interaction, I asked them to record the route they had taken in interacting with the grid.

Here we can see the participant varied their route quite a bit on interacting with the space itself.

It was interesting to see the participants engaging with the grid space, several of them adopted a less-natural gait in order to more precisely recite the route they had planned, and we saw their arms being used for balance and to help navigate obstacles. It could be interesting to reenact these movements once decontextualised by the grid/this particular space. Several participants walked on tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the post-it notes.

An unexpected observation was the change in participants’ mental states throughout the exercise. There was a certain nervousness and confusion when first being instructed on the task, and uncertainty in the chosen route. Some expressed some frustration on discovering the grid was unlike the space as they had imagined. There was a general sense of focus and concentration during the task, followed by a sense of achievement and enjoyment on completion of it. If I were to repeat this I think I would seek to find a way to record this change in mental state more fully, as this anxious anticipation could be a natural state of future thinking.

It would be interesting to do a similar exercise using a much larger space, and/or to repeat the exercise with participants who have more expertise in gesture and movement, e.g. dancers. I enjoyed when there were two participants engaging at once, and having multiple agents seeking to complete their routes at the same time could be interesting in itself.

Unit 2 – Future of the Mind – Grid cell context/research

My research into AI and artificial minds took me into the latest developments of DeepMind, the research arm of Google. I was intrigued to learn in this article that the increasing sophistication of AI is in turn advancing our understanding of the human brain – specifically here in relation to how we navigate space. It particularly fascinated me this notion of there being cells specialised to certain sensations (a bit like the individual conscious agents that Hoffman mentioned in the interview I posted – the specialised cells all contributing to one seamless conscious experience of space) – one type acting as a ‘you are here’, one for the direction of your head, and another forming a grid for relative position/spacing.

This regular pattern of grid cells was especially intriguing for me – here it referenced a hexagon, though it could also be considered a tesselated pattern of triangles. It has previously been proven in rat brains, and only in the past few years have we seen early proofs it could too be present in humans.

I love this notion of a secret/hidden mental map that is created to help us navigate the world, that is underlying our visual interpretation of the world. I wondered too if there could be a future in which we could ‘hack’ this secret mental mapping system, to make familiar spaces that we are new to, or allow you to immediately understand the best route through a maze, for instance. Use of this regularised grid could help you to better predict or adjust to new situations, which of course the Future is the ultimate one.

This strikes me as similar to the dots used in motion capture technology – to help digital imaging ‘navigate’ an actor’s body/face in order to best map it to a 3D computer generated image.

That this should be in a hexagonal grid was also very intriguing for me. Instinctively, I imagine organic forms and shapes to be irregular, curved, amorphous, but hexagons are geometric, regular, straight edged. That said it is a form we do see in nature, for instance in honeycomb structure, or the basalt columns visible in places such as a the Giants Causeway. It is described as being the most ‘efficient’ shape, and hence why the cooling rock forms in this way. It is also described as the strongest shape – hence it’s use in the structure of the strongest known material, graphene.

Giants Causeway basalt columns

It was thus especially eery to come across this display in the Whitworth, just a day after reading of grid cells.

I was interested too to see what these grid cells might look like in reality. Unfortunately it does not seem there are specific electron microscope images of these in existence, so I instead looked to images of generic neurons.

These images, magnifying the molecular to amazing detail, show an intriguing textural quality, and complex intricacy of connection
I experimented recreating this texture using gummed tape and tissue paper, along with ink and paint. I could not quite achieve the level of intricacy I might have liked but it was an intriguing effect. I particularly liked using the gummed tape to make the 2D surface more structural
With another, less magnified image (the original here on the right), I found hexagonal areas within it and cut or drew over to indicate these, before overlaying it with a regularised pattern on tracing paper. I particularly like the effect this produced, the juxtaposition of the geometric and irregular, organic and structured.

Unit 2 – Futures – Context & WIP Group Critique

I have found it difficult so far to fully grasp the context of this brief – Future being so broad and conceptual, and Mind equally so! For both concepts, they can reasonably be argued not to exist by certain schools of Philosophy (e.g. presentism states that only present time exists and the future does not in the same real sense).

It was interesting sitting as a group and piecing apart all the various elements of Future that we could use as starting points. For many of us possible futures represent a point of anxiety of where the world might lead (in dystopian imaginings) whether through further increasing technological advancements, or from apocalyptic consequences of existential threats such as climate change. What the life of a human might be like in the future is also hard to imagine, and the very basic norms we take for granted such as speech for communicating is by no means certain. It seems impossible for us to predict with much certainty what we might expect.

It was interesting too to think about different artistic visualisations of the future, notably within fantasy and scifi fiction, but too in works that imagine a utopian future that might solve a particular problem we face in our current day (e.g. feminist utopia of Tai Shani). Also intriguing the imagining of future societies looking back at our own, or at things that will be extinct or defunct (e.g. Ginsberg and Elizabeth Price).

It is interesting to look back at this initial group discussion, having just now completed a group critique of our work in progress. We took it in turns to present our work to the group, explaining our approach to the brief, the context of our work, and our ideas for a final outcome, whilst providing visuals to support and evidence this from our sketchbooks etc. Then each person in the group would feedback to the presenter. Some had specific questions to answer (which alternated between presentations) such as ‘If this was your project what might you do differently’, or ‘What are the strengths’. I found this exercise really stimulating and enjoyed engaging with others’ projects in a deeper way than had been possible in previous critiques. I also enjoyed exploring my own project in this way, and found the comments of the others to be insightful and stimulating. It has encouraged me to focus my attentions somewhat, having explored many different avenues so far!

Group critique feedback on my work and areas to explore or focus on further
Feedback post-its for another participant in the group critique (my comments on the yellow post-it note on the right hand page titled ‘gen. feedback’)
Me in the process of presenting to the group (laptop on hand to play my future self portrait video)

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – AI

For our latest brief, we are to explore the Future of one of the following: the Mind, Body, Work, Play, Home or Travel. I have chosen to pursue the Future of the Mind, since this has close relations to the Philosophy of Mind I studied during my degree, and the consumer behaviour I have researched in my career. One avenue I wanted to explore here related to the notion that a future mind might be the artificial intelligence (AI) that are becoming ever more sophisticated in the modern day.

Predictive text is probably the most common AI interaction we have – and it gets more and more sophisticated as technology progresses. Starting with ‘autocorrecting’ typing on numeric keypads using word disambiguation, the latest messaging keyboard function also predicts likely words, emojis or actions you may want to make based on the context of your and your messaging partner(s) recent messages, e.g. it will set up a shortcut to add a diary entry if a time/date is suggested for a meet up, or give a cake emoji suggestion if you are wishing someone a happy birthday. In fact, the system now does not even require that you first enter any words yourself. Relying on a body of knowledge that is based on the context of all user interactions, as well as your own, it can predict to a certain extent likely sentences and phrases that might come up.

XKCD webcomic https://xkcd.com/1427/ – the predictive text model has not yet learned the context of these movie references… yet.

Since the increasing sophistication of AI is a trend often touted as leading us to fully sentient/self-aware AI in the future (who might then be considered persons/minds in their own right), I was interested to explore generative art, making use of the models to create works that might reveal the state of these proto-minds.

First I experimented by continually pressing the left hand suggested text until I had a complete text (below) and then sent this to my boyfriend. I especially like how the model has fallen into a loop on the phrase ‘and I hope you have a good day’. That phrase is a cursory sort of nicety that serves more as a signal that a conversation is coming to a close than indication of a genuine feeling – i.e. i hope you have a good day since I don’t anticipate us interacting again for the remainder of it. The fact that that sign-off gets repeated undermines that function, so stripping it of even this meaning. The model is also failing to give us a full sentence, the breaking of syntactic convention makes this seem more like a meditative poem or song lyric, and the repetition of that phrase reinforces that. It’s interesting too that the arrangement of the repeated words appears to create diagonals across the block of text (wanna, day, you, have, good, day), almost like the creation of a pattern.

And I hope you have a good day – the first predictive text generated using my phone

It’s interesting too thinking about what the ‘I’ in this poem might signify – is it me? Is the model adopting my voice? Or does the ‘I’ refer instead to the predictive model itself?

Later in the day, my boyfriend and I experimented with sending such predictive messages back and forth between our phones, to see how this context might affect the conversation between the predictive models. The text in the green bubbles has originated from my phone, and the white from his.

It’s intriguing that here again, now from my boyfriend’s predictive model, we see a repeated phrase ‘and then I will have to go to pick up the kids tomorrow’. We do not have any kids, so this context must come from this phrase being observed from other messaging users – it’s interesting though that it first appeared in my text ‘let us get the kids’ and that my boyfriend’s one then repeated this. Generally the conversation between the models seemed to mostly orientate around arranging a meeting time and planning for tomorrow. It’s interesting too that they both made some slight use of emoji, though could not be signifying emotion in themselves.

Intriguingly, many of these messages are related to future events/future planning.

Survival Strategies: Research (pt 1)

This week we took a trip to the Eden Project in Cornwall. Our brief was to research different survival strategies whilst we were there.

The mission statement of the Eden Project is:

To connect us with each other and the living world, exploring how we can work towards a better future.

In doing so, they hope to combat ‘plant blindness’, which means that we do not realise the myriad ways in which our modern lives are inextricably linked with the natural world around us. From the food that we eat, to the clothes we wear, the medicines we survive by and materials we construct with, we neglect to consider how even most man-made products have in some way been produced using natural resources.

Their primary message is that of interconnectedness between us and the natural world (see below). The very way in which we survive at a total level is because of our place within a whole – we rely on the support of other lifeforms/systems. This interconnection/support system is the ultimate survival strategy which I wanted to explore further.