David Byrne’s Journal: Julio the Uncanny Singing Robot

06.25.2008: Machines and Souls (Máquinas y Almas)

I’m here at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid to take part in a large museum show called “Máquinas y Almas: Arte digital” (“Machines and Souls: Digital Art”), which, as one might expect, includes a lot of contemporary techie work. The exhibition title presumes an opposition, and I suspect that many of the show’s participants might disagree with this implied duality since much of the work here demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between artist and machine. Just as Descartes once separated the mind and body, we now separate machines — which we see as extensions of our body and senses — from something we refer to as our souls.

What is a soul? Some suggest it’s what survives death, joining the other evanescent and matterless essences when our “machines,” our bodies, cease to function. Some claim it has a weight, that the body mysteriously loses 21 grams at the moment of our passing. In this view, it is not DNA but the soul that contains the true self, our sacred and immutable identities.

When a limb is amputated, is part of the soul lost?  According to convention, no, it is not. When a lobotomy is performed or a person has a stroke is part of the soul “lost” or diminished? Presumably not — even a person in a vegetative state still has a soul, though we don’t know exactly where it is. Where do we draw the line? Would a brain kept alive but apart from its body still have a soul? Who cares?

I remember a comic book I read as an adolescent, Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary, by Justin Green.

It’s an irreverent look at a young man’s tortured Catholic upbringing. In one section, after being inundated with Church dogma regarding the soul, young Binky tries to imagine what it looks like. Where is this thing they keep referring to, and what form does it take? Binky imagines his own soul is a small, amorphous lump located somewhere in the chest, tarnished and dirtied by his accumulated sins. In other narratives, evil scientists and Voodoo priests know how to locate and remove the soul, or to control it, while normal doctors haven’t a clue to its existence or where it hides.

What about machines? Will there come a time when machines have the characteristics of a sentient, self-aware being? Raymond Kurzweil believes that a day will soon come when machines and living beings will merge. He predicts that we will augment ourselves with machines to such an extent that our sense of self will encompass the silicon, the circuitry, and the chunks of titanium — we and the machines will become one, what he calls The Singularity.

During some intensely emotional portions of my recent past, I would dream that I either lost my laptop, or that the screen suddenly went blank, and I would feel traumatized and distraught. The laptop, it seems, was a stand-in for myself. Others may toss and turn when they dream of losing their Blackberries, or their houses burning down, or their cars mysteriously dying, but for me it was my computer.

Our identities can be tied to certain machines, though not just any type. A power drill? Probably not, but a luxury watch, a sexy car, a camera (for a DP, or photographer, maybe?), a typewriter (for a writer stuck in the last century?), and a computer for those like me who use it to store their personal information and to interface with others. The tools we use can represent — at least symbolically — our  very identities: a Western gunfighter sees his weapon as a totem, a chef lovingly sharpens his knives, and the suburban guy washes his new car in the driveway for all to see. Though, it seems some of these machines might be standing in for a different organ, and not the soul. Oh, well.

I don’t think what I’ve addressed thus far really engages the supposed theme of the exhibition; many works seem to address the uncanny, the creepy, and the vaguely lifelike, though there are some exceptions. For instance, Theo Jansen’s marvelous giant walking sculptures are somewhat uncanny. Their insect-like movements make them appear to be alive since the artist didn’t rely on wheels or other common mechanical devices. A piece by the Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama creates weird shapes with iron filings suspended in oil, which, when subjected to massive magnetic forces, makes even stranger shapes, seeming to morph organically from one shape to another. These squirming shapes appear disturbingly alive.

A series of video projections resembles tiny deep-sea creatures or protoplasmic life, pulsing, slithering, and interacting with one another. The piece by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen gathers blog texts, then filters and speaks them aloud, evoking a visible/audible manifestation of the hive mind, and makes me wonder if our the essence of our being is now scattered, dispersed into the ether, across the internet, and living in the computers of a billion people across the world.

Other pieces move away from the uncanny, addressing different ideas. Natalie Jerimenjenko’s hydroponic plants act as lungs to cleanse the air outside the museum. Antonio Mutanda’s map shows human connectivity around the globe, as does the work of some of the other artists.

Julio, the singing robot made in collaboration with David Hanson’s lab, fits in mainly with the creepy uncanny side of the show. Julio is old-school creepy — he resembles a person, uses lifelike motions, and — yikes! — smiles and looks around, mumbles to himself, and then bursts into song. He recalls a Frankenstein monster, although, instead of being outwardly and obviously scary, he’s quasi-friendly looking and bursting with emotion. I hope the sense of realism together with the singing make him doubly creepy. How can a machine be feeling what’s expressed in the songs?


I could have designed Julio to say “human” things like, “Hi there!” or “Wussup?” I thought of having him say more disturbing things like “Touch me,” “I’m so horny,” or “Come closer.” But instead I opted for singing.

Like many animals, humans sing for pleasure, for sex, for attention, to express pain, to relieve angst and to join and participate in a social group. All of these urges seem, if not uniquely human, at least not at all machine like. To see machines mimic these aspects of human life, is to watch some part of our imagined souls being appropriated.

[Link to video]

While machines can mimic aspects of human, animal and biological processes, they still lack souls, or whatever it is that leaves us sentient, independent beings. Machines, even computers, are for the most part still modeled on digital, binary and logical thought processes, clutching the legacy of Descartes and the Enlightenment. For machines to truly simulate human beings, they will need to reason with their hearts, their emotions, as we and other animals do. We may like to think that cool logic guides, buffers, and tames our hot emotions, but many now believe that the amygdala and other emotional areas of the brain do most of the “thinking.” It seems that much of our thought process is unconscious, based on impulse, gut feeling, and instinct — and no less wise because of it. This is what’s absent in these machines.

For me, an important part of this show is about this lacuna, this missing part. Witnessing a machine approach being human — and for it to be almost believable, but not quite — can be a creepy and unsettling experience. [See Julio the Uncanny essay]

What would a machine that “feels” be like? I think it would have something like acquired instincts — a lot of them — coupled with a constellation of fears, desires, and loves. The machine would experience desire, hate, friendship, and inexorable ties to other objects and living beings. It would learn the art of deceit, whom to trust, and test the limits of its relationships. It would perform favors and help out, but might expect something in return. What a handful!

In order to think like a human, or like an animal, the machine would need the faults, foibles, and self-interests characteristic of living things. Of course, it would have mirror neurons too — or some equivalent capacity — allowing it to predict what people, animals and other sentient machines were feeling and how they might behave or react next.

We can guess the potential scenarios to follow. We’ve seen them in a hundred sci-fi movies in which the machines take over. In some of these, the machines are even arguably “better” than the people (and certainly better than some of the actors). They make more informed decisions, behave more altruistically, and are marginally less fucked up. In some dramas, the machines adopt the ultimate human foible, or strength, depending on your point of view — religion. They should be showing Battlestar Galactia at this exhibition.

Does this stuff belong in an art museum? Shouldn’t it be in the science museum, some might ask? Is it even science? Some would say that it’s engineering and innovative design, not true science, and certainly not art. I’d argue that their essentially useless content and attention to metaphor in these works suggest that they can only be shown alongside art — thereafter, let the deciders decide.

Participating artists:

    Antoni Abad, 1956, ES
    David Byrne, 1952, UK & David Hanson, US, robot
    Daniel Canogar, 1964, ES
    Vuk Cosic, 1966, RS
    Evru / Zush, 1946, ES
    Harun Farocki, 1944, CZ, football
    Paul Friedlander,  lights
    Pierre Huyghe   1962, FR, anime girl
    Theo Jansen   1948, NL, insect machines
    Natalie Jeremijenko, 1966, AU, recycling
    Sachiko Kodama  magnet forms
    Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, 1967, MX
    Chico MacMurtrie
    John Maeda, 1966, US
    Antoni Muntadas, 1942, ES, map
    Daniel Rozin, 1961
    Ben Rubin & Mark Hansen 1964, US, blog feed

Found on 1/03/2010 at: http://journal.davidbyrne.com/2008/06/06202008-machin.html


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