Life In Berlin: Turning Machine Learning Into Art

Apr 26, 2017

British artist and writer James Bridle is — like many of us — trying to make sense of the overlap between digital technology and lived experience. His previous projects have tackled drones and their hidden targets and clouds and the weather. His latest show at Berlin’s NOME Gallery handles the phenomenon of self-driving cars.

Artist James Bridle.
Credit Courtesy of James Bridle.

"So the show’s called 'Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky,' which is a line from an accident report into a car crash that involved a car that was driving itself," he tells me. "The car didn’t see a truck crossing the motorway in front of him. And this story kind of stuck in my head, because I’ve been interested in self-driving cars for awhile as an example of a technology that seems kind of futuristic, but it’s suddenly almost here, with very little discussion, really.

"So can you tell me more about the research and process of putting together this show?" I asked him.

"I did what a lot of researchers have done, which is simply to kit out the car with cameras and sensors and drive it around until it learned to copy me. I wrote a lot of that software myself, to allow me to do that, because I’m not Uber, or Tesla, but I got good results out of it. It behaves in ways that are opaque to us — and this seems to me to be a really crucial thing to understand as machine learning gets into more and more of the world. It’s all very well to have a super-smart computer to decide whether to give you a mortgage or not, but we have to understand how and why it makes that decision, otherwise we’re giving up all our agency. As an individual, are you okay with most of the world being essentially opaque to you?"

"Yeah," I responded.

"We trust in society now to technologies we don’t really understand," he says. "And sometimes that’s fine, but those technologies come with a huge amount of bias. Or they read the wrong information. But also maybe a society constructed entirely around digital rules isn’t the society we’d wish to see. There are alternatives.

"I’m curious about the piece where the car is trapped," I asked him.

Another view of "Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky" by James Bridle.
Credit Courtesy of James Bridle and NOME

"There’s a piece in the show which takes an image of the road as the car perceives it and slowly transforms it into data. And that’s the process of watching the machine understand what it’s seeing, but the end result isn’t something that humans can understand at all, it’s raw data, just ones and zeroes. So where’s the mid-point in there? Because these cars learn to obey the rules of the road, you can play with that. The work in the show is a salt circle around the car which mimic the rules of the road. So the car drives in and it can’t leave because its bound by its own technology to obey the rules of the road. So you’ve trapped this vehicle using a salt circle, which has a long history of magical and ritual use. But here it’s a way to quickly intervene: The car is seeing the world, you’re seeing the same world, and you need to communicate something between the human and the technological. Trying to find a cooperative space, basically."

James Bridle’s "Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky" runs at the NOME Gallery until July 29th.