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Kronos Quartet & Trevol Paglen: Sight Machine at the Barbican

12 July, 2019 — By Tessa van Rens

AI is everywhere. It guides us to work and back, picks our music, answers all our questions, drives cars, fires rockets and even guards our borders. How we see these technologies is a constant topic of debate; their ethical implications, similarity to the human brain and access to data. But how does the AI see us – humans? This is the question Trevo Paglen tries to answer in Sight Machine, where an algorithm analyses the live performance of the Kronos Quartet.

On a screen behind the talented string players we see the inner workings of the machine; its ‘eyes’ detect their faces, bodies, instruments and movements and tries to make sense of it all. Lead by the ensemble’s stellar performance of a wide range of pieces – from George Gershwin to Laurie Anderson – I wonder; does this machine see the world like we do?

Assumptions that artificial intelligence is or soon will be super intelligent, more objective and knowledgeable than we ever can be are soon dispelled by its false recognition of objects such as jelly fish and an hourglass, and mistaken identification of Sunny Yang, the talented female violinist for a sad, young boy.

As Paglen intends, the performance forces us to question the faith that we put in these machines but for me, it does more; it reminds us what it is to be human by showing us that which is clearly not.

When the Sight Machine searches its database for thousands of images of violins in mere seconds it clearly knows more than us; but it also misses so much. The skilful and passionate movements of the players, the emotional resonance of the ensemble’s performance, the feeling of wonder when we see images of the earth from space – which are also filmed through an AI’s eyes – to Terry Riley’s larger-than-life One Earth, One People One Love. The audience and the Kronos Quartet are in on a special secret that the star of the show can’t understand – and I think it’s this experience that the audience will remember long after the Sight Machine goes to sleep.

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