Among neural networks, poetics and ethics

A multidisciplinary artist Daria Goffman was one of the residents within the hackn3t program by Format C, which was held online throughout 2020 and 2021. Following the focus of her practice and her collaboration with Format C, Goffman talked about her residency project and experience with (online) mobility and further elaborated on questions of integrating the subject of neural networks and artificial intelligence in the art practice, reflecting also on ethical and critical aspects connected to this field.

In November 2021 you were participating in an online hackn3t residency by Format C, named NeuBaudelaire with the subtitle Using neural networks for artistic purposes. Could you elaborate further on the connection between organic neural networks and AI? What was the reason behind choosing Baudelaire’s work for the poetic base of the project?

Frankly, despite the fact that artificial neurons are inspired by biological processes, they are fundamentally different from their biological counterparts, so we still do not reliably know the exact processes of the brain. In the functioning of artificial neurons, the work processes of biological neurons are only imitated, and simplified mathematical models are being used. Biological and artificial neural networks are often studied together as one of the methods of programming artificial intelligence.

Artificial neural networks gained their popularity only in 2012. Up to that point, they were considered a dead end in machine learning development, as artificial neural networks were difficult to train and they were not reliable models of how our brains work in reality.

I will briefly describe the differences in how organic neural networks and AI neural networks work.

Biological neurons generate electrical signals – this allows them to quickly transmit information over long distances. Almost all neurons have three main functions: they receive signals from outside, process them, and pass the signal on to cells, muscles, glands, or other neurons. They may also decide not to pass on the information received. Most neurons receive multiple inputs, whether or not a neuron fires an impulse depends on the sum of all the triggering and inhibitory signals it receives.

An artificial neuron is the basic unit of a neural network. As I said, this is a mathematical function based on a model of biological neurons. Artificial neurons perform the following functions: they take input from the input layer, weigh them individually and sum them, then pass this sum through a non-linear function to get the output. A neural network is a network made up of individual processors that can work together to process information and make judgments based on established data.

Thus, researchers are using neural networks and artificial intelligence to try to create computer systems and software that can approach the computational capabilities of the human brain. As we all see, researchers are both close and far from their goal.

This was one of the reasons why I chose Baudelaire as the poetic basis of my hackn3t online residency project. Just as decadence, of which Baudelaire is a prominent representative, sought to free art from materialistic concerns, so the neural networks used in art seek to oppose the old formats of creativity and free the artist from the process of producing a work of art. On the other hand, I have always looked for a form that would represent how I feel when I read Baudelaire’s works. Pre-trained neural networks that bend and change reality depicted my feelings from his poetry and allowed me to create works that convey the mood of immorality inherent for Baudelaire, the denial of the difference between good and evil, between beautiful and terrible.

One of your main interests revolves around artificial intelligence. There are more and more experts that try to point out the fact that the question around AI shouldn’t focus on its possible future consciousness, because that shifts the focus of the discussion from more urgent questions of ethical nature such as the treatment of people behind the AI program, minority underrepresentation and other “algorithmic injustice” issues. How do you approach the subject, particularly because you graduated with a thesis on Ethics in Machine-to-Machine Communication?

This question was one of the main topics raised in my master’s thesis. I’ll tell you a secret, I’m making a plan to write my doctoral dissertation on this topic. At this stage of studying this issue, researchers are convinced that in the 21st century there will definitely be an “intellectual explosion”, after which a self-improving artificial intelligence will be able to achieve its goals without resorting to the help of people. And now the question arises about who are these people programming artificial intelligence. Research on the issue of “algorithmic injustice” is already underway, for example, the philosopher, neuroscientist, geostrategist and writer Nayef Al-Rodhan, in his book on how robots acquire ethical values, Moral Code, talks about neuromorphic chips that try to analyze data in a way similar to human: non-linear and with millions of correlated artificial neurons. Robots operating with such technology receive information and develop in a special way, vaguely reminiscent of human consciousness. In this context, the question of the environment where these robots exist and learn about the world and ethics is inevitable. An environment in which they absorb human weaknesses and vices, such as selfishness, doubt, craving for cruelty, and so on.

However, considering the ways that allow you to lay ethical standards in artificial systems, we can safely say that they are insufficient in their form. For myself and, as it seems to me, for the future society, the most important questions are: How to choose, in each case, what is ethical for artificial systems and what is not? What selection criteria should be used to determine the ethical actions of partakers and stakeholders in the artificial intelligence development field? Who determines these criteria: is it the choice of the majority vote, the decision of the state, or philosophers and scientists in the field of ethics? My task as an artist is to diversify this task and expand the circle of participants that determine the norms of ethics for the future of artificial intelligence.

In a world increasingly prone to crisis and uncertainties, virtual residencies are becoming an unavoidable format of ‘mobility’ within the art world. How would you describe your experience with online residencies so far and what is your view on the possibilities and challenges of online knowledge sharing and transfer?

As a primarily digital artist, I can say that my virtual residence experience has been fascinating. Having the opportunity to independently plan the course of my residence, I managed to include a master class in it and show the process of my work on the project step by step, and teach how to use neural networks to those who are unfamiliar with this topic. However, on the other hand, I would like to have more interpersonal communication, which usually happens in offline residences, both between artists and between artists and organizers of residences. It seems to me that virtual residences are also excellent grounds for inclusive work with artists who, for one reason or another, do not have the opportunity to visit the residence in person. The pandemic has shown us that you don’t have to travel by public transport to complete a project or come to a meeting. I love how the crises allow technology to develop – to be honest, I just love it.
However, in connection to the current situation in the world, which I cannot but mention since this is very important and the war is not a solution to any of the problems – it seems to me that for many artists, online residencies are the only possible residencies. Collaborations of artists who oppose war and repression are already showing that in order to engage in joint creativity, it is not necessary to be in one place.

On the other hand, I am in favor of collaboration, education, and artistic practices also existing offline, since many parts of the creative process are much more enjoyable to do in real life. It seems to me that there should be a balance of everything in life, although, determined by what is happening in the world, the transition to the exchange of knowledge and feelings through the internet is inevitable.

You have a diverse formal educational background. What do you think are the ways for the educational establishment to follow rapid changes in the field of art, new media, and technology?

It is difficult for me to talk about how it happens in Europe or in America since all my education was received either in Russia or in Ukraine, and this imposes certain bureaucratic difficulties on the process of obtaining it. Lately, I’ve been trying to promote the idea of ​​a diversified education. Society today is at a historical stage of development, the main characteristic of which is a change and it is characterized by four features: continuity, stability, swiftness and the ability to accelerate. Therefore, it seems to me that lifelong learning, both for employees of educational institutions and other citizens, is fundamental. By diversification I mean the variety of educational trajectories provided by an unlimited version of educational programs, taking into account individual abilities and needs. From my perspective, education as a sphere of social practice, creates not only objective conditions for expanding knowledge, enriching experience, and mastering the methods of cognitive, practical and social activity, but also forms a holistic personality and I am, of course, not only talking about classical educational institutions but also about the practice of self-organization in the field of education. I think that the cross-communication between self-organized educational programs and classical education, as well as the diversification of the existing educational process, can allow institutions to follow the rapid changes not only in these areas that I mentioned above but in all others.

The close connection of digital art to new technologies makes it difficult to exist outside of creative industries, market and profit logic. How do you see that coexistence developing further and without losing a critical perspective?

More recently, in the Russian online segment, an article with the topic NFT as a special case of patriarchy. How the struggle for independence from financial institutions and assistance to creators turned into a hyper-capitalist nightmare made a lot of noise. The way I see it, in this article the point is not even that technology limits the existence of technological art, but that there will no longer be existence outside the world of the market and profit, and the point here is not even about art. Perhaps I will slightly stray from the topic of creative industries and digital artists – the same system applies to classical painters. As long as the artists are a part of a whirlpool with cultural institutions, they will have great opportunities (in our field that means technical ones).

But I would like to point out how much technologies, and in our case new technologies, used by digital artists affect the environment. You can talk for a long time about how the excessive use of certain technologies is killing the planet Earth, but it seems to me that it is worthwhile to thoroughly raise the issue between the regulation of the use of technologies to create objects of art and the restriction of the rights and freedoms of the artist in their self-expression.

It seems to me that this question is both more critical and looks not only into the future but also beyond the smokescreen of the existence of the creative industries in general.

Artist: Daria Goffman
Interview: Martina Kontošić

Projekt prilagodbe otvorene online platforme “Inquiry Inc.” podržan je sredstvima Ministarstva kulture i medija RH, posredstvom Javnog poziva za programe digitalne prilagodbe i kreiranje novih kulturnih i edukativnih sadržaja, 2021. i 2022.

hackn3t je projekt AKC i umjetničke organizacije Format C, financijski podržan sredstvima Ministarstva kulture i medija RHZaklade Kultura nova i Grada Zagreba.

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