What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase ‘Artificial Intelligence’? Maybe robotics, chatbots, facial recognition, or self-driving cars? It’s most likely computer-based, and certainly involves technology, but what if I told you that centuries before the advent of even electricity, humans were fixated on creating artificial creatures.

Back in ancient times, myths were in circulation revolving around artificial beings being granted intelligence or consciousness by humans or craftsmen. 16th Century Prague saw Rabbi Loew create The Golem made from maltar, which comes to life with the intention of protecting the Jewish people from attacks, blurring the boundary between the dead and the living, and the reality and fiction. Similarly, medieval alchemists dedicated much of their time to the belief that they could transform things into forms of artificial life, and this was used to explore immortality.

The age old desire to expand intelligence was accelerated in the 1940s with the creation of the computer, providing scientists with the power to generate models capable of solving complex tasks, emulating functions previously only carried out by humans. As artificial intelligence matures and we see milestones reached such as AI beating professionals at Go and the suchlike, the boundaries between human and technology are beginning to blur. Where do we end, and where does technology begin? At the AI: More than Human exhibition at the Barbican in London, these topics were explored, delving into a comprehensive timeline of AI, acting as a celebration of how far we’ve come rather than a warning, and highlighting some of the most promising technologies for the future of humanity. The exhibition presented more than 200 installations, exhibits and projects by artists, scientists and researchers from across the globe.

Photo by Adam Muise / Unsplash

After depicting some of the most popular artificial presences in society such as comic book characters, figurines and objects used in prayer such as the Golem, the exhibition explored the beginnings of AI, recounting the first neural network which stemmed from the idea that rational thoughts could be transformed into formulaic rules. “The first step toward artificial neural networks came in 1943 when Warren McCulloch, a neurophysiologist, and a young mathematician, Walter Pitts, wrote a paper on how neurons might work. They modeled a simple neural network with electrical circuits.” It continued by highlighting the importance of Alan Turing’s work as depicted in The Imitation Game by showcasing a selection of letters exchanged between Alan and a journalist who was keen to learn how “the chess-playing computer” worked, and the journalist was eager to visit Alan to photograph the process to make it relatable to the public.

These early years saw a huge progressions made from figures such as Claude Shannon and Ada Lovelace who contributed vast amounts to the understanding we have today. The exhibition explored these timelines, as well as paying particular attention to influential female figures working in STEM. Whilst women in AI are no longer a rarity, it remains a vastly male dominated field, and the exhibition’s highlighting of impactful work contributed by women was a welcome feature. Continuing through the timeline of AI and DL, we arrived into the 21st Century and some of the groundbreaking work being done today both in research and industry applications to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. In the early 2000s came a data explosion where there was a rapid increase in the amount of published information which enabled experts to start working on what we know to be Deep Learning today. With the “Godfathers of AI”, Yoshua Bengio, Yann LeCun and Geoffrey Hinton working away on convolutional neural networks during the AI winter of the 70s, by the early 2000s deep learning was rolled out, creating its initial impacts on the real world; the research theories were becoming a reality.

Today, AI is all around us. If you have a smartphone in your pocket you’re carrying AI. If you browse online and find yourself viewing adverts based on your search history that’s AI. If you talk to a bot online, you’ve guessed it, that’s AI as well. With the technology impacting every industry, emphasis was placed on the ethical challenges that are now a focal point of concern. Amongst several interactive zones, guests were encouraged to create their own AI art, have their pictures taken, and give feedback to help NLP training. One of the immersive stations took your photograph and asked several questions about the way you think your data is used, opening a dialogue surrounding ethical uses of information, and giving out pointers for people to improve their online security. Highlighting some of the issues of bias was the exhibit by Joy Buolamwini, “AI Ain’t I A Woman?” calls attention to the ongoing deeply problematic issues of racial biases in automated facial recognition systems, using Oprah, Michelle Obama and Serena Williams in her spoken word visual poem focused on failures of artificial intelligence on these iconic women. Joy explains that the software bias doesn’t come as a big surprise and reminds us that you only get out of AI what you put in, which calls for teams of developers and designers to be diverse across race, gender, and culture.

Closing the exhibition on the Barbican’s ground level, was the digital instalment “What a Loving and Beautiful World” by Universal Everything. Set in its own room, the responsive digital walls creating heightened images of nature, and the algorithms respond to the individual movements of each person in the room, creating a personalised experience. The soothing abstraction takes influence from Japanese culture and nature, leaving a lasting sense of tranquility at the end of the exhibition. Throughout the couple of hours we saw how AI can help in businesses, with medicine, climate change, growing and producing food in programmable micro climates and help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

RE•WORK’s Summits cover several of these topics in detail, bringing together some of the world’s leading experts in AI and Deep Learning to explore the ways this technology is transforming business and society. Take a look at the upcoming events here to learn more about Responsible AI, AI in Finance, Deep Learning, AI Assistants and more.