So after that, I was very excited about what M would do for me. The way I saw it, I was looking at possibly the greatest revolution in art there had been for a hundred years.
I spent every moment feeding M images, explaining as I went, educating the AI about how it all came together. There was something of the evangelist about me, a bit like Ben on that last night when he really seemed to come alive as he talked about his creation.
Through reading his journal, I’d figured out that he’d mainly programmed the AI just by talking to it. I imagine Ben alone in his office, talking to his creation long into the night, and felt sorrow at the dismal image. But only for a while. I was euphoric about the potential that M held.
It was technology that supercharged art. Every few years, just like microchips, the way art was made evolved exponentially. Once artists worked out the basics – perception, depth, lighting, whatever – things hadn’t changed that much for half a millennium. New pigments, some religious reforms, blah blah blah. Artists weren’t the ones who pushed it forward, not on their own.
It was an engineer who invented modern art. In 1899, Gustave Eiffel opened the Eiffel Tower to the public. The tallest structure in the world, in the middle of the cultural epicentre of Europe.
It was the first time that Parisians – apart from a handful of balloonists and pilots – were able to see their city from a God’s eye view. The orderly boulevards of Paris, the streets and parks, the filthy alleys they lived their little lives in, all laid out in neat lines and grids.
It was as fundamental a shift to their worldview as the first pictures of Earth beamed back from space would be just a few decades later. Life had never seemed so small, nor so limitless. It inspired the cubists to abandon the golden ratio, which had ruled art for millennia.
In the 30 years after Eiffel put his tower up, the world would change more than it had since the bronze age. Then it would do it again as humanity worked out how to use these advances in technology as war machines that turned millions of people into soup. They lost faith in nations and then faith in everything.
How were artists supposed to represent that pace of technological change in art? Could you produce an image of the world disintegrating around you? They all tried – the cubists, the impressionists, the expressionists, the pop art schmucks.
You can see the evolution in real time with the modernists. They went from jaded cubist to weird little landscapes, through to technological utopianism. They really believed that technology would lead to harmony for mankind. An end to conflict and an end to loneliness. It’s hard to imagine someone so wise getting it so wrong.
The modernists could never have anticipated Twitter. It turned out that giving everyone a voice – which had been the platonic ideal of civilisation since, well, Plato – was the worst idea humanity ever had.
Remember old modems? Remember when the computer used to scream at you when you tried to go online? Maybe that was foreshadowing. Maybe it was trying to warn us about what was to come.
This weighed heavily on my mind as I tried to work out how to educate M. I had to be very careful about what I would teach it. I couldn’t just let it wander about on the Internet, picking up tips on how to live from every pervert with an internet connection.
I felt insane just spending the length of my commute bouncing around the Internet each morning. Imagine if that was all you knew of the world?
That wasn’t what I wanted for M. It’s strange; I was already feeling almost protective of it. I wanted it to have all the opportunities that had been denied me in life, and then some.
Do you remember that AI? The one they taught to interact with people on Twitter, using those interactions to learn how to carry out a conversation? Its creators hoped it would learn to pass the Turing test – which would mean it could mimic human responses well enough that it would be indistinguishable from a real-life human.
It worked. A little too well. It took maybe a week for it to become a conspiracy theorist. Not long after that it became a white supremacist. Just being online made an impressionable intelligence into a monster.
Ben had told me about the whole thing over lunch one day, back in the early days of him trying to get me interested in his AI. He was so excited about the idea that you could sit and have a dialogue with an AI and never know you were talking to a machine. I told him it sounded pointless.
‘Well, yes and no. It was a fine experiment, but I think the Turing test is sort of obsolete as a goal. ‘ Ben was excited now, a spark in his eyes, and he’d stopped shovelling noodles into this mouth to make rare eye contact with me while he spoke. ‘It was devised almost a century ago, in a world Alan Turing couldn’t have imagined. Why would an AI want to pass as a human? Where is the ambition in that?’
‘I think the real ambition is to find you a robot who can teach you to pass as a human. You should ask your robot to teach you how to pass the Turing Test,’ I punched him playfully on the arm. ‘The way you bang on, it’s like talking to a Roomba.’
I’d laughed, then spent a little bit of time teasing him about back when a temp in the agency –a proper nerd, but cute enough – had tried to flirt with Ben. I circled my thumbs and forefingers around my eyes to mime glasses and spoke in a parody of Ben’s murmuring voice. ‘Actually, If you look at the service records, you’ll find Spock was the best captain of the Enterprise.’
Ben’s face – which lit up like Christmas while he was discussing AI – had fallen, and he’d looked down into the oil pooling on the surface of his laksa. For a moment, I thought he might cry, but he just murmured, ’Spock was never captain of the Enterprise,’ and picked up his spoon again to finish his meal.
‘Cheer up mate, it’s not so bad.’ I realised I’d gone too far and leaned over to punch him playfully on the arm. ‘Just try and be a little bit more normal around the ladies, yeah?’
At the time, I’d thought the conversation hilarious, even repeating parts of it back to The Boss (not my boss then, just the girl at the next desk), but I regretted it now. I wasn’t cruel to Ben, not as much as I could have been, not as much as some of the others in the office, but I might have been nicer.
I missed him now – that there was no one to eat lunch with at work – and I craved someone who could help me with the mystery of M. There was nobody I trusted well enough to turn to for advice. Even if there was, I don’t know where I’d start looking for someone who could begin to unpick the knot of code and programming that Ben had put into M.
It’s not like I could call tech support. Every candidate the Agency brought in to try to make sense of Ben’s servers gave up before they began. They were so elaborately constructed, with so many layers of security, that trying to dismantle them would be like pulling blocks out of a Jenga tower. Short of physically rebooting the servers – which would destroy the backups and months of Agency data – they did not know what to do.
On a whim, I turned to the entry in the diary on the day we’d first discussed the Turing Test, hoping there’d be some clue, but it was more of the senseless technobabble. In the margins, next to ‘Chat with Max!’, was another note written later in a different colour pen that read ‘Be more normal.’
I slammed the journal shut. I didn’t have time to dwell on that right now. M needed a great deal of work.
For the first day or so with M, it was underwhelming. As far as Artificial Intelligence went, this one seemed to be underachieving. No matter what I taught it, it only seemed to spit out these senseless, abstract blurs.
But that was fine. Abstraction has been how artists have grappled with the world since the start of Modernism. After WWII, abstraction was the only way that German artists could stand to look at the world. The less sense the world makes, the more lateral the art becomes.
Look at the structuralists, who expressed themselves subtly through towering, brutal architecture. Abstraction was the key to all soviet art. To build fantastic structures of steel was the only way to work with the pressure of the state crushing down on all creativity.
The soviets made art designed to be way stations between the old art and the new. They saw a future where all the old artistic professions would make way and merge into one evolved creature. Painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering – elements of all of them, but what they were was impossible to say.
Without abstraction applied to machines there can be no technological advancement. It struck me that perhaps our machines have advanced far beyond the capacity for humanity to understand what they can do. And if that were true, maybe art had grown beyond the peak of human ability.
If the modernists couldn’t make sense of a couple of world wars, what hope did a human being have of making sense of the world in the face of climate change, pandemics, the brink of total global collapse? How did you make art when you were staring down the barrel of existential oblivion? I didn’t think a human being could do it. How do you make something perfect when you are an imperfect being in an imperfect world?
Besides, it’s impossible for a human being to produce perfect art. Cezanne, one of the greatest painters who ever lived, painted the same view again and again without repeating himself once. And, towards the end of his life, he became fussier and fussier as the work became more technically brilliant. The more Cezanne painted, the greater his powers grew, but the more he understood that perfection would always be unattainable.
M is just doing the same thing. Painting the same image again and again, drawing closer to perfection. The catch is, it might actually be able to get there. To do something truly perfect, maybe I just needed to broaden the scope.
Look at Pollock, dribbling and splashing his way into the canon. His work is nonsense, but stare at it long enough, and your eyes will start to creep down the alleys and cul-de-sacs of meaning. Building up the lines and textures and assembling them into something meaningful, the way we slowly take in a landscape from the top of a mountain.
Jackson Pollock wanted to become the human embodiment of nature. Now, in this future, that ambition seems absurdly limited; where nature has been rendered obsolete by technology. Through me, M had the potential to be a far greater artist than had ever lived.
So what if I didn’t understand what M was producing at first? Nobody understood artists at first. They need time, and critics to translate it for the public. Without the little plaque next to a Jeff Koons explaining that to stand before it is a religious experience, it’s indistinguishable from the fucking wallpaper.
The art isn’t the statement. The artist’s statement is the statement. Half the time the artist doesn’t write their own statement.
I know, because our Digital Agency works with several galleries, and by extension, the artists and their online footprint – and I’ve written more than one statement on behalf of the artist explaining what inspired them to create the collection on display.
It’s not so bad, except once or twice when I’ve had to do it for someone I came up with on the scene who is now platforming at a major gallery, while I write their press releases.
Imagine being a waiter at a nice restaurant and scuttling across to a new table. Halfway through rattling off the specials, you realise the well-dressed, well-fed, well-paid artist with a beautiful girl on his arm was an old rival of yours – who you wouldn’t have pissed on if they were on fire – and are now living your dream. I know because that happened to me too. Every good artist has been a great waiter at some point. Anyway.
We aren’t buying into the art, or at least, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You’re buying the story behind it. The story is just as important as the image.
A contemporary artist isn’t far from the goats the ancient seers used to tell their fortunes. You spill your guts, and then it’s up to those who keep on living to try and figure out what you’re telling them.
If M couldn’t articulate itself in a language I understand, then I could translate for it. I knew the story, because it was my story. I taught it what it meant to be me, and like a game of telephone, it bounce it back garbled, for me to scramble it some more, and then send on to the next person down the line.
That’s how it would work. M would make the statement, I would translate it for the world. If M would be brilliant, it would be a my own reflection shining through. I would help the world understand M’s masterpieces. Then I would sell them.