I was in Weimar last week for the Goethe Institut’s second biannual Kultursumposium, a global gathering of 300 speakers and participants primed to discuss ways of thinking about the future.
During a break, I headed off to explore the recently opened Bauhaus Museum nearby, which chronicles the famous art, design, architecture and educational movement founded in a multifaceted city that was also home to Goethe, Schiller and Liszt.
Often described as the most influential school of art and architecture in history, the Bauhaus was founded in 1919. Its design principles and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and functionality live on in everything from iPhones to Ikea furniture, still astonishingly modern, a century later.
But its relevance to today goes beyond appearances – so to speak. As the museum exhibit make clear, Bauhaus proponents wanted to pose questions about how people live, how they create, how they build communities, how they respond to the growing role of technology and automation in society.
That’s about as contemporary as you can get. All those concerns dovetailed intriguingly with the Kultursymposium, a reminder that, in our self-focused way, we look on our own times and believe we are unique, and that no society has ever faced our perplexing challenges. Yet while details differ, often the broad picture is, if not the same, familiar enough to bring a jolt of recognition.
Slave to the machine or to social media, disoriented or entranced by the speed of change, looking to nature or ancient societies as a counterbalance, alarmed at the rise of populism and nationalism, disconcerted by economic uncertainty and the growing power of market-dominant companies? We’re channel-hopping between the early 20th and 21st centuries.
Answers were elusive at the Kultursymposium. But the questions were endlessly fascinating.
A highlight for me was a kick-off session that asked what role robots and other (often anthropomorphised) forms of artificial intelligence will play in the human future. Three speakers give very different perspectives.
Norwegian entrepreneur Karen Dolva talked about her company No Isolation’s focus on “warm technology”, the creation of products that she hopes can counteract loneliness. They include an endearing robot head that “goes to school when a child cannot” – it can sit with a child in hospital, broadcasting, via a direct link, daily school activities to the child, enabling her to remain part of her school community.
Northern Irish robotics expert Noel Sharkey addressed robot relationships, looking at some of the ways people interact with various embodiments of artificial intelligence, including Japanese childcare robots, sex robots, an Einstein robot that can copy and categorise facial expressions, and a female robot that was granted official Saudi Arabian citizenship.
He’s concerned about the “fictive relationship” people have with such machines, especially with the risks of assuming such robots have actual intelligence and can form friendly relationships with people, when they are products built by developers who design algorithms with their own biases, working for companies that ultimately control that human/machine relationship and can use it to acquire personal information from the people via those robot products.
The third talk, by researcher and artist Mari Matsutoya, explored the phenomenon of the Japanese holographic pop idol Hatsune Miku, a national obsession that made international headlines after a Japanese man “married” her last year.
Now she’s available as a tiny, animated holographic figure inside a coffee-machine sized glass container, which Matsutoya terms a “wife in a box” that talks to her owner, wakes him in the morning, texts him throughout the day (and it is usually a him – she is a product targeted especially at lonely single young men), turns on houselights and heat before he arrives home, and watches TV with him in the evening.
“It’s a dream they’re being sold” that “capitalises on loneliness” and “softens up the image of the company” marketing her, she notes.
What effect do such AIs have on human relationships now and into the future, as they grow more complex? Other panels dug deeply into parallel topics – how will life change as AIs take over human labour? Care for us? Police us? Surveil us? Carry deadly weapons to fight wars?
And one of the biggest questions: who writes the algorithmic brains of these and other existing and future technologies? What unconscious or conscious bias structures their “intelligence”? Who or what controls them? Will we grow more isolated, relating more easily to our intelligent technologies? Or will they free us to focus more on being human?
The Bauhaus founders would have recognised all those dilemmas, I think, and found satisfaction that they are still being debated passionately 100 years on in Weimar.