Think Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man, Steven Spielberg’s 2001 science fiction A.I. Back to the Future and its vision of the year 2015. It was all a fantastic (and somewhat unrealistic) glimpse into the future that felt very far away. Hovercrafts, terrible silver plated clothing, A.I housekeepers. A beautiful vision of the year 2000 by 19th century dreamers proposed firefighters with wings, men racing on eels, automatic brooms that swept on demand. But now with dramas such as Humans on Channel 4, and the recent award winning Ex_Machina, it all feels a little uncomfortably close to home.
Of course, Manchester is no stranger to the pursuit and curiosity of human imitation. Alan Turing devised his infamous Turning Test at the University of Manchester in the mid 20th century, a huge influence on the curiosities on artificial intelligence.
This exhibition, comprised of eight international artists, seeks to explore the imitation of human life inspired by Turing who dedicated a large portion of his life to devising a test exploring computer’s ability to emulate human thought.
A particular stand out piece is Mari Velonaki’s Fish-Bird, an interactive installation focusing on a tragic love story between two wheelchairs. It is a simple aesthetic with such tragic and complex possibility, a story over 10 years in the making – an idea conceived by Velonaki in the early 2000s. A story that isn’t possible without the interaction of humans, yet there is this strong underlying feeling that you’re in the way of something powerful, interrupting on an intimate moment. Walking around this exhibition, I was constantly reminded by an emotion that is innately human – love. Passion, yearning for compassion, all these things that make us, essentially, weak.
If you’re into causing a little mischief, then Paul Granjon’s Am I Robot is a playful interaction between a robot and the people it engages with on the gallery floor. I had great delight in controlling this little robot’s movements and speech in a small enclosed room on a separate floor. WHAT IS YOUR NAME. I think it’s trying to say something. WHAT IS YOUR NAME. Darling, the robot is talking to you. Don’t be stupid. WHAT IS YOUR NAME. See! It’s asking your name! Reply to it!
My mind is still blown by the concept of telephones, the internet and even the fact that OUR MOUTHS MAKE SOUND AND THIS TRAVELS THROUGH THE AIR AND GOES INTO PEOPLE’S EARS AND WE PROCESS THIS INTO COHERENT LANGUAGE !!! so this exhibit was personally, a little overwhelming with the possibilities and projections of our research into computer technology. However we cannot shy away from our inevitable progression in our relationship between human and computer, and we must embrace, however terrifying, this complex discovery into the future.
If you’re interested in hearing from the artists about their creations and visions of future technology, then the gallery is running a plethora of talks, demonstrations and events surrounding the exhibition. I’ll be attending Paul Granjon’s performance lecture on hand-made cyborgs. Details here.
Manchester Art Gallery’s new exhibition The Imitation Game is a thoughtful insight into how we respond to our curiosity with rapidly evolving technology, and our projections for the very near future. The exhibition proposes a question, much like Turing over 50 years ago, in which we ask can computers think, and can they play the imitation game with us?
Exhibition runs 13 February – 5 June 2016. Free.