25 January 2019
BL Labs 2018 Artistic Award Winner: 'Another Intelligence Sings'
When the natural world is recorded, it is quantised for the human ear, to wavelengths within our perception and timeframes within our conception. Yet the machine learning algorithm sits outside the human sensorium, outside the human lifespan. An algorithm is agnostic to the source, the intention and the timescale of data. By feeding it audio samples of lava and larvae, geological tensions and fleeting courtship, the seismic and the somatic, the many voices of life are woven into a song no one lifespan or life form could sing.
Another Intelligence Sings ( AI Sings ) is an immersive audio-tactile installation inviting you to experience the sounds of our biological world as recounted through an AI. Through the application of neural networks to field recordings from the British Library sound archive a nonhuman reading of the data emerges. Presenting an alternative composition of Earth’s songs, AI Sings explores an expanded view of what might be perceived as intelligent.
The breadth of the British Library Wildlife and Environmental Sounds archive enabled us to take a cross section of the natural world from primordial physical phenomena to the great beasts of the savannas to the songbirds of the British countryside. The final soundscape is created from using two different neural networks, Wavenet and Nsynth. We trained Wavenet, Google’s most advanced human speech synthesis neural network, on many hours of field recordings, including those from the British Library archives.
Nsynth is an augmented version of Wavenet that was built and trained by Magenta, Google AI’s creative lab. Nsynth creates sounds that are not a simple crossfade or blend but something genuinely new based on the perceived formal musical qualities of the two source sounds. This was used to create mixtures between specific audio samples, for example, sea lion meets mosquito, leopard meets horse, and mealworm meets ocean.
Click here to play a 4 minute clip of the sound from the installation.
Through this use of the technology, AI Sings reorients the algorithm’s focus, away from the human expression of individual thought and towards an amalgam of geological and biological processes. The experience aims to enable humans to meditate on the myriad intelligences around and beyond us and expand our view of what might be perceived as intelligent. This feeds into our ongoing body of shared work, which raises questions about the use of artificial intelligence in society. Previously, we have used a neural network to find linguistic patterns not perceivable to human reading to mediate our collectively written piece Weaving Worlds (2016). In AI Sings we continue this thread of asking which perspectives an AI can bring that human perception cannot.
AI Sings takes digital archive content and makes it into a tactile, sensuous, and playful experience. By making the archive material an experiential encounter, we were able to encourage listeners to enter into a world where they could be immersed and engaged in the data. Soft, tactile materials such as hair and foam invited people to enter into and interact with the work. In particular, we found that the playful nature of the materials in the piece meant that children were keen to experience the work, and listen to the soundscape, thereby extending the audience of the archive material to one it may not usually reach.
By addressing the need for experiential, visceral and poetic encounters with AI, Another Intelligence Sings goes beyond the conceptual and engages people in the technology which is so rapidly transforming society. We hope this work shows how the creative application of AI opens up new possibilities in the field of archivology, from being a tool of categorisation to becoming a means of expanding the cultural role of the library in the future.
The piece premiered at the V&A Digital Design Weekend 2018 on 22nd of September as part of London Design Festival, where it was exhibited to over 22,000 visitors. Following the weekend we were invited by Open Cell, London’s newly opened bioart- and biodesign studio and exhibition space, to be showcased on their site.
More about the project can be found on our websites:
Watch the AI Sings team receiving their award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 8.18):
Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.