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Mimicking Machines

Machine learning technology is in every instance a mimetic technology. At every level, there is mimesis: between training data and the world, between machine learning models and training data, and finally between human minds and machine learning models. But mimesis is a two-way street: humans mimic computers just as much as computers mimic humans. What are the implications of this observation? What does it do to our understanding of machine learning to conceive of it as mimesis, and which avenues of agency does this mimetic perspective illuminate?

Mimicking Machines is the title of Malthe Stavning Erslev’s PhD project at the Dept. of Digital Design and Information Studies, Aarhus University. The project centers around the concept of bot-mimicry - the practice of humans imitating (ro)bots that imitate humans. It explores our continuous mimetic dance with computational systems as solidified in auto-didactic encounters with automated software in and through mimetic practices of electronic literature and digital art. The didactic potential of harnessing this phenomenon emerges as an aesthetic-mimetic approach to developing post-digital literacies in K-12 education and beyond, which is in part explored through a collaboration with Danish public libraries.

As a research project, Mimicking Machines works through analytical as well as practice-based methodologies.

Publications

Practice

Sivilisasjonens Venterom [Civilisation's Waiting Room]

Participation in project led by Jill Walker Rettberg.

In November 2021, around 50 people (approximately 20 researchers) participated in Sivilisasjonens Venterom - a live action role play (LARP) focusing on machine vision, surveillance, and ethics. The LARP centered on a fictional future, where a post-apocalyptic world is riddled with environmental and military damage. Few places remain habitable. One such place is Sivilisasjonen [Civilization], in which Intelligensen [The Intelligence], an advanced AI, is responsible for all major decisions, and where personal scores (continuously calibrated by Intelligensen) determine the value of individual humans. The plot of the LARP takes place in the 'waiting room', where outsiders are evaluated and possibly granted entry into Sivilisasjonen. MSE Participated in the LARP, playing the role of Trinidag, an Observer whose eyesight was directly linked to Intelligensen.

The LARP functioned as an autoethnographic study as well as a design experiment and gave valuable insight into the dynamics of decisively using mimesis (in the form of roleplaying) as an approach to machine learning design. The insights from the LARP will be communicated in a research publication in 2022.

Aarhus Urban Operating System (AaUOS)

Collaboration Anders Visti.

This work was commissioned for the 2021 ELO Conference and Festival: Platform (Post?) Pandemic. It was also a direct continuation of the efforts made in the MOBBOT workshop series (see below).

Aarhus Urban Operating System (AaUOS) is situated as a parasitic ‘flipside’ of the ELO 2021 conference website. On the AaUOS website, you’ll find a chatroom populated by e-literary bots that are trained to be connoisseurs of certain aspects of the city of Aarhus. The bots of AaUOS are based on equal parts handcrafted conversation trees and recurrent neural networks (RNN). Each bot is a character in a metropolitan drama, from the head of the tourist department to the local bog body, the Grauballe Man.

The RNN models are trained on texts about Aarhus as it is in its presents and pasts, as well as urban development plans that represent an increasingly gentrified future of Aarhus. The work furthermore entails multimedial content, from images to sounds. The sounds were recorded locally in Aarhus as part of an earlier version of the work, which this new chatroom-inflicted version is based upon.

By creating an interface that connects these generative corporate visions and city-imaginaries with a virtual conference on electronic literature, AaUOS sustains an e-literary encounter with emergent imaginaries of Aarhus, stemming collaboratively from local city developers, a machine learning algorithm, playful imitative writing practices, and an international community of scholars.

Featured in exhibition

MOBBOT

Project initiated in collaboration with Christian Hagelskjær From and Anders Visti.

A collaborative investiation of the dynamics of mimicry between humans, AIs, and everything in between. On August 29th, 2020, the workshop series "Mob Programming for Bot-mimicry" initiated, setting the code&share[ ] collective on a course to design and develop a platform for curious experimentation with bot-mimicry, be it a conversational game or a performative setting. We ended up hosting three sessions which led to further development in a smaller group.

Taking collaboration to the next level, the MOBBOT project approaches both design and development of the platform through the practice of mob programming - the practice of programming collectively in a group (or mob), taking turns operating the mob's single keyboard.

The platform being developed is both a feature in MSE's practice-based approach to knowledge development and an effort to create a constructive intervention, gathering design considerations for sustaining post-digital literacy through design and literature.

Literature in Digital Transformation

Literature in Digital Transformation was a project collaboration between Roskilde Libraries, Herning Libraries, Helsingør Libraries, Aarhus Municipality's Libraries, and Litteratursiden.dk.

As part of the project, MSE interned for three months, taking part in the the development of a new iteration of the Poetry Machines, and furthermore partaking in the development of a new teaching platform for digital literature. The teaching platform is the first widely available of its kind, and was based directly on previous research-based experience as well as Erslev's ongoing research into the potentials of digital literature to sustain the development of post-digital literacy in K-12.

Featured in publications

DoppelGANger

Collaboration with Mitra Azar

"DoppelGANger.agency believes that every human on Earth needs to find their algorithmic double – a first step towards a new idea of privacy concerning facial recognition and biometric technologies at large." (from project website).

The project points at raising the question of humanity’s aesthetic and emotional extinction, attempting at finding the humans in the midst of the latest technological disruption. The project is a radical and ironic gesture which mixes algorithmic art and street art, questioning the relation between online and offline world, the human and the technological.

MSE partook in early concept development, and produced the initial iterations of the project, including the iteration that was exhibited at the 2019 Havana Biennial, as part of !!!Sección A R T E (cf. http://www.nestorsire.com/act-no-22_12-04-2019/).

The Oracle from Selphie

Collaboration with Søren Pold and Jakob Fredslund, co-produced by CAVI

The Oracle from Selphie is a new layout for the Poetry Machine. The Oracle instantiates a close resemblance between ancient oracles, horoscopes, machine learning, and social media. The Oracle from Selphie lets the reader create new and unique texts from a corpus of available sentences, all of which parody the style and content of horoscopes; some sentences give statements about the reader’s current mood and thoughts, while others predict future events.

With the graphic design resembling a kitsch-like version of a social media feed, and an introductory text referencing machine learning and computational statistics, these horoscopes are put into a post-digital context. Here, it becomes evident that most of the texts we read, write, share, etc. online are highly pre-defined. The connection to ancient oracles highlights how these strange predictions often require interpretation and specific action from the recipient – the question of whether social media is mainly documentation of or template for our lives becomes evident.

MSE's interest has mainly been on the practice of invoking references to machine learning in a piece which is in no way based on machine learning techniques. In particular, MSE am interested in the way we attribute functionality to the system based on shared cultural conceptions, as embedded in tech narratives around machine learning.

Featured in publications

 

f-ah-n-eh-t-ih-k_m-ih-r-er [Phonetic Mirror]

f-ah-n-eh-t-ih-k_m-ih-r-er [Phonetic Mirror] is an experiment into natural language processing (NLP). It investigates the relation between corpus text and output, and it troubles notions about ‘learning’ present in machine learning discourse. Phonetic Mirror lets you build a corpus by talking to your computer – the computer only ‘knows’ the words you say to it. In addition, the Phonetic Mirror only ‘learns’ the words based on their phonetic structure – the structure individual syllables present in each word you say.

Phonetic Mirror then talks back to you, creating words (or sound poetry) based on the learned relations between phonemes. As such, Phonetic Mirror operates closer to an extracted sound-similarity than to any grammar when creating new words based on you input.

Phonetic Mirror is an investigation into the mirrored relation between person and interface: who mimics whom in this phonetic dance? To what extend are we inclined to label the program ‘natural language processing’, given that what it produce is quite far from anything we would usually consider to be NLP. The output seems to make close to no sense – though the algorithm is based on NLP-processes and ‘learns’ in a way which seems closer to that of human language acquisition: by listening to and copying the phonetics, not the grammar, of language.

*** Based on and inspired by code by Daniel Shiffman, Daniel Howe (the RiTa library for p5.js), and R. Luke DuBois (the p5.speech library).

Malthe Stavning Erslev

School of Communication and Culture - Department of Digital Design and Information Studies

2018-2023

Funding

  • Graduate School at the Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University
  • ELO research fellowship 2020/21
  • STIBOFONDEN (travel stipend)
  • Augustinus Fonden (travel stipend)
  • William Demant Fonden (travel stipend)

Outcomes

  • AaUOS, a research-based work of software art, presented at the 2021 ELO Conference and Festival and featured in the Platforming Utopias (and Platformed Dystopias) exhibition (collaboration with Anders Visti). See AaUOS on this page.
  • A three-session workshop series at the code&share[ ] collective. See MOBBOT on this page.
  • A research-based one-session curriculum in digital literature. See Literature in Digital Transformation on this page.
  • Appearance at the 2019 Havana Biennial with the second iteration of the research-based project DoppelGANger (collaboration with Mitra Azar). See DoppelGANger on this page.
  • A range of scholarly publications.