"If you hit your desk, your parent will say - 'Say sorry! Say sorry to the desk.'”

How Japanese Shintoism influences views on AI, with Maholo Uchida, Co-curator of AI: More than Human.

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What's the main message of the exhibition?

First of all, I want to explain our subtitle ‘More than Human.’ I didn’t agree with it before, because it sounds like (we had a big discussion about it) it sounds like AI vs. human, but my main message was that the definition of ‘human’ could be seen as a ‘live being, with technology.’ So, AI is not vs. human, humans include technology and include AI. This exhibition was curated by two curators, not only eastern eyes and not only western eyes, so it was a big collaboration with diverse viewpoints. I think through the exhibition, the audience will be able to accept the message for this new kind of relationship between human and technology.

"We wanted to start at the beginning with ancient belief, but as it turned out our ancient belief was totally different." 

What will surprise people about the exhibition?

The diversity of the collections, from East to West, from ancient history to modern day. It’s not only about computer science academic history, but also cultural history. We include science and art projects all together, equally. I’m really happy that Massive Attack joined our exhibition because it’s pop-culture, not ‘modern art.’ We also included animation and movies. Of course, there are more and more cultures and topics, but I think we covered a hugely diverse range of topics. People can find a certain link to them, through their preferred object or project.

Maholo Uchida

How was working with Co-curator, Suzanne Livingston?

I really loved working with Suzanne. Her background is more academic, I am more from a museum background. Her and the Barbican team loved to take inspiration from the Japanese culture, by talking and discussing AI, and they are so open to my ideas. I’m also surprised how different we are. I’m used to communicating with Western people, I have spent time in New York for a year, so I thought that we knew each other, especially in our academic area. However, the curating means that we have to choose all the objects and agree all the stories and values. Sometimes when we write the text for an object, we find out that we see it differently. So that was really…you know, international collaboration is such a luxury, a great way to understand each other’s cultures.

Is there a particular object where you had different perspectives?

The first part of the exhibition is very much the typical difference because Suzanne wanted to include Golem and I wanted to include Shinto. They’re totally different and they reflect a historical difference in our human thinking in relation to other species. Golem was kind of creature who knows everything. He sees humans from above and if humans do something wrong, he punishes them. With Golem, or Christ or Allah for e.g., there is always one exact God that exists and then there is a pyramid structure of hierarchy. However, Shinto is flatter. There are 8 million Gods that exist, and humans exist with nature and it’s more kind of fluffy. So, the starting point was very different. We wanted to start at the beginning with ancient belief, but as it turned out our ancient belief was totally different.

And in the end you included both…

Yeah, yeah and I think all the other artifacts and all the artist pieces relate to ancient believes always. So that’s a beautiful part of this exhibition because we have covered such a long history and also we have covered such a wide scope …unfortunately we couldn’t include Russia or India…or all the countries, but we have two perspectives from extreme sides. Maybe next year… Yeah yeah! So, with this exhibition we kind of wove our different perspectives together.

"I’m also surprised how different we are.  International collaboration is such a luxury, a great way to understand each other’s cultures."

Moving on from ancient history to present day, how pervasive is AI in our lives?

When I spoke about it in 2019 (the first run of the exhibition), I think I said it will come. For example, with smart phones, there are no smart phones without AI, so already it is everywhere. But especially after coronavirus and staying at home, people are more connected to the data. Before it was certain time frames with AI and without AI, with data and without data (online, offline in the physical world) but it’s already more enmeshed, so we cannot separate. Even in one year people have become very comfortable talking online. In Japan we have the Clubhouse app, do you know it? In just one week it started, a new type of SMS just by voice, which is quite interesting. People are so open to connect to online SMS, before it was more suspicious - “How is Facebook using our personal data?” - but now people are so eager to speak to people, they get so lonely and bored. So, AI is already so pervasive.

It’s so true isn’t it, my screen time is through the roof…

Yes, for example, this interview, our first meeting is one-to-one, so I’m more comfortable, but to be in a meeting with 10 people I find that I become data.

You become data?

Yes, I feel like I become data content.

I see, yes! Sometimes you wonder if the people in your computer are real even!

Yes, that’s true.

"AI doesn’t have emotion, that means it doesn’t pretend to be a good person, so it shows up everything."

How is the development of AI teaching us about ourselves?

This is a big topic in the exhibition. Especially in 2019 in the UK, the ethical questions of AI had a really high profile. AI doesn’t have emotion, that means it doesn’t pretend to be a good person, so it shows up everything. It shows up the gaps or discrimination, the gender gap, black and white, or Asian…or I think between humans and technology. Or hidden facts. Humans want to hide or can pretend there are no problems, but AI shows up everything. I think that’s AI teaching us how we designed our modern social system, or the modern way of life, or the way our brains work. We then realise how we have so much bias.

You mentioned a prejudice against technology, can you explain that?

In Japan, there is no boundary between technology and humans. So, we always personalise everything. For example, if I have a pen and I draw eyes and mouth, I have already personified the pen - “Oh how cute you are.” I think everything, an artificial object or technology we can personified. So, I think AI or computer programmes, a train, a refrigerator, if you spend lots of time with them, we have a certain kind of sympathy with all technologies.

In the UK, if our computer is being annoying, we may get annoyed and even hit it…

Yeah, I think some people may hit the computer, but basically in Japan people always care about the object. So, we are educated in that way…when we are children if you hit your desk, your parent will say - “Say sorry! Say sorry to the desk.” That is totally normal. If we break something or don’t look after something, all the parents say - “No, you need to care about everything.” So not many people hit the computer. They get angry, but don’t hit. Some people get really sad because the computer doesn’t work nicely for them, that’s the mentality.

It’s such a respectful way to view the world…

Yes, that’s why people get so surprised about how clean Japan is. If you throw away something, we feel very uncomfortable, because you are not taking care of that trash, or that street, or others because you are being unpleasant.

So you think AI and humans could happily co-exist?

Yes, of course, it should be yes. But I think it’s important that humans, especially Western people, accept that the human is not the top. Humans are side-by-side with technology, with other animals or whatever. We cannot control AI in the future, I’m sure we cannot control everything.

"When we are children if you hit your desk, your parent will say - “Say sorry! Say sorry to the desk.”

Is happily co-existing dependent on respect for AI?

Yes. If we want to control everything then it will only be a scary thing because AI is much much smarter than humans in certain situations, I mean 100 times smarter. So, if we get scared of their skill, then we cannot be happy. We should be happy – “Yes AI is so smart! They can help us!” – and sometimes they do make a mistake so we will also have to accept that.

It’s almost a religious conversation, but happy is a tricky word. If you get sick you often become happier than before you were sick, because your perspective changes…

Especially in this modern science technology era, let’s say in the last 200 years, people made huge science and technological developments. They think because human skill and power got us this far, we can control more and know more about nature and humans. Then we can make wonderful technology that can help us live easier or live longer. And yes, before AI, humans could still control modern technology, but AI and robots might surpass us. The scariest part is if the AI can think in the future. But it’s the same as lions or dogs or cats, they think, they do whatever they like, but we live and co-exist with them. I think we should keep an open mind about living alongside technology.

What do you think the future looks like?

I think it doesn’t look like the future we imagined. Some technologies maybe, like space innovation… but our life doesn’t look very futuristic because those sci-fi, futuristic visions of the future are not very comfortable for humans, all concrete and metal and glass. So, I think we will design our environment, but the technology becomes very small and tiny physically, so we cannot see the technology. The technology become much more ‘into’ our life. We don’t see thick cables, it’s 4G, 5G, all the wi-fi and communications technology that we can’t see, the computer programme, the CPU, the memory, everything, becomes so small, like Elon Musk we would have a computer chip in our brain. But physically, the future looks the same.

"We should be happy – “Yes AI is so smart! They can help us!” – and sometimes they do make a mistake, so we will also have to accept that."

What do you hope people will take from the exhibition?

Acceptance and openness of technology. Technology is maybe only one example, acceptance of others, having an open mind to everything.

And also, be ready, for the future!