Complex Made Simple

As far as I know, I’m not a robot? But, never say never?’

Shumon Basar is a writer, curator and cultural critic. He is Commissioner of the Global Art Forum in Dubai.

Below are 5 Questions with Basar in relation to ‘I Am Not a Robot’, the theme for the 12th edition of The Global Art Forum, which focuses on power, paranoia, and the potentials of automation.

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1-What aspects of the automated future excite you? What aspects worry or scare you?

Since the unintended consequences of technology dictate the future, I’m most fearful of what we can’t or won’t foresee. And yet, we have enough examples from history to remind us that every invention will also at some point be used against what it was intended for: cars and airplanes became bombs; the Internet is the main platform for the bullying of young people today, as well as the new frontier of warfare.  The problem of automation isn’t automation, but as ever, it’s us.

2-Google’s algorithms have started to deep dream, producing psychedelic images. How much longer have humans got on the monopoly of culture?

The best poetry of the last decade is email Spam: its language has a quality close to human, but also, jarringly askew.   In the same way that Copernicus shifted Earth from the centre of the universe, we also need to shift our perception that we are at the centre of culture. As Trevor Paglen has pointed out, there are more images produced on a daily basis right now than in the history of humankind. And the vast majority of these images are made by machines for machines. And so, bring on the machine art critic, the machine curator. Let’s see if we really are as special as we think we are.

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3-Robots today are capable of contributing to the economy as much- if not more- than their human counterparts. Should robots be given the same rights, and be held to the same societal obligations as we are?

Because we think of machines as non-sentient, we think it’s OK not to afford them rights, or compassion. In essence, it was the same logic that was also at the heart of slavery. We should know by now that anything is only as “good,” in the moral sense, as the goodness we impart upon it. I would, therefore, strongly advocate for thinking of a completely new compassion towards our automated brothers and sisters.

4-What influence, if any, does automation have on the art world today?

The first stage was mechanical reproduction. Andy Warhol used to say, “I want to be a machine.” The new stage feels like it’s only just happening. One the one hand, artists are turning to automation as content in their work. Yuri Pattison and Cecile B Evans are just two brilliant names that come to mind.  I heard that Silicon Valley employees prefer to buy paintings from Instagram accounts their friends have already bought from.  And then there’s the question of how algorithmic trading might play a role in an art market, which has been fully incorporated into the global financial system.

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5-Why are you not a robot?

If I were a robot, I’d have been programmed to tell you why I am not a robot. Like the replicant Rachael in the original Blade Runner movie. As far as I know, I’m not a robot? But, never say never?