The love bot has entered the gallery

The love bot has entered the gallery

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Midway through a demonstration of a genderless AI chatbot named Echo at the 2024 Rhizome 7×7 festival, the machines appeared to cut the humans out of the equation entirely.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, a legend in the art world for her imaginative uses of tech, was on the stage with Replika CEO Eugenia Kuyda, attempting to converse with Echo, when an audience member’s voice-activated phone assistant began interjecting. For an uncanny second, it seemed as if the machines were ready to pick up the conversation without us.

Rhizome, a nonprofit arts organization based in New York, has a long history with digital art and engaging with cultural tastemakers. The first NFT was minted at the 2014 festival; participants have included Miranda July and Aaron Swartz.

This weekend, the organization, in partnership with the New Museum, convened the 14th iteration of 7×7, a festival that pairs seven artists with seven technologists and asks them to rapidly collaborate on a new work of art.

The 2024 festival marks the festival’s return after a multiyear hiatus. And while the organization has long engaged with the promise of artificial intelligence as an artistic medium, the emergence of fast, readily accessible generative AI tools means it is everywhere. Do we want to find AI in a gallery when we can’t even escape it in the reviews section of Amazon listings?

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“We feel like it’s actually a more important time to kind of take a step back and have these more expansive approaches to AI, as opposed to quickly getting to whether AI is good or bad or whether it’ll take our place in our jobs,” said Xinran Yuan, co-curator of this year’s 7×7 event.

Back to our friend Echo. Leeson and Kuyda started their project with a narrative proposed by Leeson: A grandmother, intent on saving humanity from its own discriminatory nature, takes to space with a set of human embryos in search of a fresh start. Her lone companion? An artificial intelligence.

“There aren’t enough grandmothers in film,” quipped Leeson at one point, prompting one of the day’s only spontaneous rounds of applause.

Leeson is a digital and performance artist whose works seem even more groundbreaking as they age. Her 2002 film “Teknolust” stars Tilda Swinton as a scientist and her three self-replicating automatons who run an online chat service and subsist on a diet of sperm (ethically and safely harvested via one-night stands). The film bombed at Sundance, but the chat service — Agent Ruby’s EDream Portal — lives on thanks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The pair showed a clip from “Teknolust” as they introduced their 7×7 piece. It closed with Swinton admonishing her automatons, “Remember, no one is supposed to know you are real.”

Kuyda suggested that the grandmother and the AI should fall in love.

Kuyda’s day job is CEO of the AI companion bot company Replika. (Echo was built as a custom, one-off Replika.) Replika is one of the most popular AI-powered chatbots and, Kuyda told The Post, most often used for romantic companionship. The company has come under scrutiny for the resulting influence over users’ intimate details and mental health, particularly when updates alter the bots’ personalities. Some users have been left feeling abandoned.

Kuyda seemed to address this onstage. Rhizome’s co-executive director Michael Connor asked about the disruption that Replika’s updates had caused to users. Kuyda said users can now opt out of updates that improved the model — some are more content with what the company considers a less intelligent version of the AI.

“Do you want to hurt a user and not let them experience romantic love, whether it’s with an AI being or human? Or [do] you step aside?” Kuyda told The Post. “I think in our case, as long as let’s say the answers are simple, as long as it’s safe and it’s helping people feel better, you know, we’ll step aside.”

Connor and Yuan, the curators of this year’s festival, hope the inclusion of creatives who operate outside of a traditional museum space will expand their reach. This year’s participants included the director of human-robot interaction at Boston Dynamics (your algorithm has no doubt served you one of their robots doing backflips or walking a runway), comedian Ana Fabrega (“Los Espookys”), and musician and comedian Reggie Watts.

The vibe was casual, and the setting — the basement auditorium of the New Museum — was intimate, with about 170 physical attendees as well as a live stream on the New Museum’s YouTube page that averaged around 80 active viewers during the event. When I was checking in, Fabrega was in line ahead of me, getting a wristband like the rest of us.

Fabrega was paired with Cristóbal Valenzuela, CEO of Runway, a generative AI video company. She brought her deadpan humor to the stage from the start, introducing herself via a slate of AI-generated film and television projects. She and Valenzuela clashed at the start of their collaboration over their different conceptions of what AI should or could be asked to do, she told the audience, and didn’t fully reconcile until they met in person.

“It kept trying to make my jokes full sentences,” Fabrega said of her interactions with AI. She came to realize she needed to treat it as a tool, rather than a collaborator. We wouldn’t ask if popular video editing software Adobe Premiere makes good movies, Fabrega said; we would ask what editor and director was behind it.

The presentations got more performative as the day went on. After intermission, a Boston Dynamics robotic dog took the stage with a dancer to enact a performance conceived and emceed by artist Miriam Simun.

The dancer and robot marched, circled each other and waved matching ropes. Forget walking in a fashion show, as a similar robot did for fashion line Coperni last spring. No robot has never seemed more sentient than when, like a small puppy, it needs to be repeatedly instructed to drop the toy.

“Do it. Do it. Do it, Spot,” the human dancer Mor Mendel admonished.

So is engaging AI in art practice the answer to our existential questions about its role in society?

“You can come up with what people should do with AI, but in reality, when they actually do interact with it, it’s going to be very different from what you expect,” Kuyda said.

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