Does Data Dream of Electric People?


What do Machines consider to be Art?

Machines are becoming increasingly intelligent. They can write code, run financial markets and have the potential to automate a number of jobs. Science Fiction writer Richard F Adams asks whether they can do the same in the creative industries. If so, what will they consider to be art?

Most stories deal with people, which is no surprise really as the world is full of them and they are all we have had to gossip about for thousands of years. Up until now civilisation has been solely about humans and humanity but, from here on in, we have put in place the beginnings of a new society that isn’t only about people. Humanity is on the verge of creating new intelligences that we don’t understand. These intelligences will run the world for us without us understanding why or how.

The ultimate triumph of understanding ourselves, our science and reason, may be to create a society and economy that runs entirely independently of people, via smart automation, networks and computing. A report in The Economist highlights this and confirms that trading in financial markets is already running quickly down this route.

How might this affect creative and artists? A great deal is written about visual and auditory digital art and computers (I’m a digital arts graduate from twenty years ago) yet most people’s perception of digital art is of some sort of Photo-shopped images, or iPad pictures or listening to a remix of lots of samples. In reality, these are only digital in the same way oil painting uses the word ‘oil’ to differentiate the type of paint. In the end they are still standard pieces of recognisable form consumed in understood formats.

Truly new, computational art is being explored but is largely invisible to the wider public, for all sorts of reasons. When I showed a bunch of Post Graduate Students a number of pieces of truly digital art they actually struggled to recognise it as art and preferred to call it interactive fun or Xbox Art. Which begs the question, if we don’t recognise it as art and we see it as play, will machine intelligence know what it is and will it like it? How will this shift away from having a great aesthetic affect our human art, our soul and indeed our narratives in this new machine age or will the replacement for Modernism that largely drove twentieth century western arts be replaced by something such as ‘play’?

This is not just confined to visual arts though, we already have machines that can write, as Steven Levy pointed out in an article for Wired. So, the most interesting question is perhaps, what will they consider to be their art? When they can make art, what aesthetic will emerge alongside their intelligence?

Science Fiction is a Modern Invention

I have a number of interests here. Firstly I have an unfinished PhD lying around that attempts to characterize this aesthetic that arises from emergent systems. Secondly, I have been working with big data and smart predictive systems in business and thirdly I write science fiction on these themes in which I explore how people live in a society that is managed and run by intelligences that may or may not be malevolent. Character-wise I have been very careful not to ascribe motives to these intelligences, because I have no idea what their motives and drivers might be. A tendency in science fiction is to take a machine and anthropomorphise it, give it human intentions but I can’t see how this can work when they are emergent alien intelligences.

The thing about Sci-Fi is that it nearly always has a strong relationship with the time in which is written and there are clear trends around the stories and tech in them that relate to their time. You can see that clearly in the chart on this article at Sci-Fi as we know it, is a modern era invention, and the stories change to reflect the prevailing technological orthodoxies, so our Sci-Fi needs to reflect this third machine age.

It’s interesting that the notion of robots in fiction has so far been so anthropomorphic and I wonder if this is because society has spent two hundred years building machines that extend our physicality so it became natural to write the robots as beings like us but superior extensions of our physicality and by extension, our intelligence. Even Hal, was very very human. Now, of course, we are busy building machines that can extend or replace our mental abilities in new ways; there’s a shift from horsepower to brainpower, if you like. Which begs the question, “How the hell do we write stories about something that is unknown and totally alien, yet is embedded in our lives?”

Creating a Character from data and Emerged Intelligence

In my own fiction, I am slowly trying to explore and build a credible, believable future world, where the antagonist is data and emerged intelligence. This isn’t human intelligence, it’s new and incredibly alien and my characters have no idea how to deal with it and indeed, neither do I. How can I conceive the totally alien; what motivations might it have?

Looking back through Sci-Fi, we rarely find characters created directly from data, but we do find data at the heart of numerous stories, such The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a sort of mathematical sociology. Using the laws of mass behaviour, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale; it is error-prone on a small scale. The principle is that the behaviour of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large, in this case the population of the galaxy which has quadrillions of humans, inhabiting millions of star systems. Much derided in past decades the ideas have gained some currency again with the rise of big data and big analytics. I would contend that in this series the maths/data is actually a character, in that it is used to reflect back to the humans something about themselves in ways that other authors might use demons or aliens.

Things change though and Asimov’s society has evolved into something else. We now live in an era of terror by unseen forces that aim to undermine our lives and souls. Supra-national blocks have and are dissolving. Old businesses are being disrupted and disintermediated; indeed, even manufacturing is facing a threat from 3D printing. We also live in an era of mass surveillance from every time you login to your email, to when you walk the streets you are under constant surveillance which is building up more and more data on you.

Which brings me to Person of Interest

An Alien Protagonist

For me Person of Interest is one of the first dramas to take smart machines based on data and use it as a totally alien protagonist. The humans are doing its bidding but have no idea why it does what it does. To them, and to us, its motivation is unfathomable. I am struggling to find another example where a protagonist is quite so alien and this is partly because, as writers we have to tackle our emerging data society in a different way to how we tackled narratives in the previous machine society.

Physical engineering empowered our bodies, data empowers our intelligence but as yet we have no idea of how this will affect us; we have no templates to build on. Person of Interest does exactly what I chose to do in my own writing and throws out the anthropomorphising of the data and creates something totally alien, that is ostensibly a machine but increasingly appears to making active choices for unfathomable reasons. It will be interesting how the writers deal with the notion of a second, competing machine being turned on and how that relationship between two totally alien machines will transpire.

More and more pieces of writing are tackling these themes in different ways and it will be even more fascinating to work out as writers, how our culture and our stories will relate to a society run by machines that help us create, or in some cases do the creation for us. What will the aesthetic look and feel like? Will we recognise it as something human; is it already here and we just can’t see it? When they start creating for us, what will the machines like? Will we become culturally subservient to machine driven aesthetics or will we reject it and return to some sort of hand-crafted aesthetic of old, leaving the machines to get on with whatever they want to do? Will they end up being as important to our stories as the sky?

As writers, our fiction has to reflect us as people or it appears alien. So how will it do that when we have given ourselves up to these new intelligence? How do we characterise something that is totally unknowable? Will the emergence of the data society see the emergence of non-human, alien, arts? One thing is certain, it is unlikely there will be a binary answer.


Written By

Richard F Adams

Richard is a technologist and Sci-Fi writer. He mainly writes hard sci-fi short stories and series exploring the new machine age and world of data but is currently writing a gory thriller, a story of obsession, love, sex, lust and betrayal. Find out more about his work at

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