Refik Anadol and Mira Lane | Dialogues on Technology and Society | Ep 5: AI & Creativity
I'm Mira Lane, Senior Director of Technology and Society at Google, and today I'm going to be talking to Refik Anadol, a trailblazing and world renowned media artist whose stunning data visualizations have been featured in major museums and festivals all over the world. We'll discuss data, storytelling and discovering the possibilities of machine intelligence while challenging what it means to be human in the age of AI. Refik, thank you so much. It's lovely to talk to you.
I think it's so important for us to have these types of dialogues with people in different fields, people with different types of experiences with AI and especially trailblazers like you. And so I think what we're going to talk about today is really about creativity, the way AI is empowering it, some of the challenges we see and maybe how we think about just the machine, human AI collaboration and what kind of opportunity that opens up. You're such a multi dimensional artist. Tell me about your story.
What inspires you? Thank you very much. First of all, being together. So start point is very, I guess, humble and simple in Istanbul, where I'm originally from, I grew up with a beautiful family of teachers. In our family, like, learning to learn is like a default network mode of doing things is not a problem.
If you can learn, I think, like many of us as young minds, we don't see dystopia, we don't see problems, or, I believe, witnessing computer very early ages. That's how I start this idea of machine one day will become a friend, and the future can be inspiring to imagine together. I think the human mission collaboration concept, or like playing games with AI early ages, truly bring this, I guess, mindset. That's such a big concept at a young age. And to have that learner's mindset as part of your family, when you have that at the beginning, at the beginnings of your youth, that sets you on a certain path. Right? You're open to a lot of things.
It really adds a lot of value to like sharing. First of all, coming from the teacher teaching is really, I think, ultimately, fundamentally one of the most inspiring work. Being able to learn, to learn really gives you a lot of advantages in the challenging world of unknown. Yes. And that mindset truly helps in everything. So what inspires you? Where do you draw your inspiration from? I think generally near future, but a future that is, like, really near, I would say.
Not ten years out. I would say that's more inspiring to imagine where we may go and what will happen to us. And as you mentioned, like in the storytelling stories, naturally in science fiction are super fundamental inspiration. But I'm also very inspired by science in general. I think there are incredible points happening right now, even with AI and data.
You weave that into your art as well. That's, I think, one of the amazing thing like, look at science as an input for humanity and try to understand and narrate that world to everyone. Because sometimes science can be very complex. Science may require education to understand, unfold, but stories and narratives and sculptures and paintings relatively makes things, I hope, more accessible. First of all, in my work, I always believe that art should be for anyone, any age, any background. And that idea of finding language of humanity is one of the profound research.
And nature too, as well. Refik, it seems like nature serves as an inspiration to some of your work. I believe nature, for any of us living in this Earth, should be truly very important. But to me, nature is a fundamental source of every inspiration. Nature is so this wisdom time concept. I mean, the life of a tree, the wisdom over that arc of a lifetime is probably very different than what you and I experience day to day.
I mean, nature is always with us since the beginning of humanity. Right. But maybe this is the challenge of technology. Sometimes technology created this illusion of, like, we are better than that. Actually, I think it's not.
We would not exist without it. Yes. And this is such an important topic. Your work around coral reefs especially touches on this too, right? Yes. What are you hoping the message in that is for people? We have around now 400 million images of representing nature in some capacity. When I say nature, like national parks, water, like reefs or mountains, skies, clouds, like, really flora, fana, fungi, we really, as a team, try to capture common themes for humanity. And nature is, of course, one of them.
World Economic Forum was very much looking for strong statement about how AI can be used to do things for humanity. But still, the challenge to me was, of course, it can be great scientific discoveries and breakthroughs with AI and nature, but how to navigate and explain to the public sometimes requires another language. So we thought that perhaps this research, we can look at corals, which is very significantly, but what we tried is, can we reconstruct something we are losing? Can we use AI to reconstruct such an intricate, complex and valuable forms of nature? Of course, we are not solving the problem of the climate loss or problems on the corals, but the question was, can we at least do something about that while bringing attention and importance? Good news. We had this around 135,000,000 images of coral.
How does one capture 135,000,000 images? All online. Everything social media we can find. But we also reach out many institutions who are in charge of this research.
But here we have the other advantage of, like, what happens if we take these images and turn them into three dimensional forms and perhaps put them back in the water and maybe reconstruct a new life? So this was like the original idea, and it worked from UN many origin preservation teams are 3D printing and putting those creatures underwater to try to see if it's possible. I think we did a great demonstration of to the world leaders, this is a problem here exists, and then this is one way of using AI creatively and here's one way of using AI for scientific domain. And I think it was a pure success to get significant world leaders around the one topic. I think it's truly possible, if the conditions are right, to use AI both creatively and functionally. And I think sometimes creative contact doesn't need a function for the art's sake, but in those conditions it is possible.
Do you have a creative collaborator or like a muse, do you think about creativity in that way? I would say really machine is my first muse because I believe I mean, when I say muse, like really as an assistant, as a friend, imaginary friend, I try to hold on that imagination with technology is a powerful way of enhancing our cognitive capacity. And I think now, especially with AI, then it's becoming very accessible. Encounter with AI should not be just one way of imagining the nature of quest. And deep diving into any topic is still a human instinct. We're driving that.
Yes. And I think without that, I don't believe AI can even show us the brightest worlds still. That curiosity is the fundamental of fighting any quest. I think that's important because there's a lot of fear right now also. And there is this counterargument against the fear that no, you actually need the human behind all of this to direct it and to help utilize it in the right way.
What do you say to people who are, and rightfully so, right? There's legitimate concerns and there are fears that maybe people will be left behind or technology will move in a direction that we don't intend it to move. I think they are all so, first of all, I completely hear every single perspective when it comes to AI. Because in humanity, in our journey, in this Earth, or in this universe or galaxy, I don't think we ever witnessed something intelligent before.
We never have a technology that is profoundly mimicking intelligence. So that's something very different than finding the photography or videography or internet. The complexity to it is different. And to me that's very normal to bring those fears and anxieties. But to me, it is truly about a mirror concept that I feel like it's absolutely about humanity.
It's not about AI. So let's just not put AI in this blame corner. It is truly about humanity.
And the thing I tell people is come and play with it because the fear of the unknown is big as well. And so sometimes we want to get your hands messy and see where the edges are. And then pretty soon you can see what a certain technology can and can't do. And it helps to diminish the fear of the unknown, right? Completely agree. And I think questioning the systems, softwares, hardware and AI is a fundamental necessary and I think generally artists are the alarm mechanisms for humanity. Right.
There was always this moment of discovering what may go wrong mindset. I mean, that's a very human instinct and I think it's very necessary. I think the artists are also pushing the edges.
We will take something and use it in a way that wasn't intended and we'll find the edges and we'll want to tinker with it. So I think artists play lots of roles here. One to sound the alarm and the other, well, what can I do with this? And I mean, you're a trailblazer in that way. Thank you very much. So how do you think about the next generation of artists and what that looks like for them with all this technology at play? I think right now it's another breakthrough.
We are in multiple renaissances, back to back. I think internet and then web one, web two, web three, AI, quantum computing. I mean, this is fascinating lifespan.
For artists it's pretty much an incredible opportunity to push anyone's imagination c apacity and systems can allow many creators, not only artists, anyone want to be creative, generative, AI and tools are extremely accessible to generate things that maybe not possible before. Of course there is these ups and downs of any systems. Of course there are questions about data and privacy.
I'm sure they will be like one by one can be sorted in the long run, but the fundamental change is really inspiring. And Mira, I'm also very curious about when it comes like researching and creating a major impact for humanity. And these technologies are creating incredible solutions for complex sciences.
And how do you see the pros and cons in when working with such an important level of technology? Oh, that's such a good question and such a hard question. Also. A lot of these technologies require us to think incredibly nuanced depending on what we're doing with it. And so sometimes there is if we're looking in the creative space, let's have conversations with artists, let's co-create with them and understand what this piece of technology is good for, what the challenges are and co-create that together.
I think about but how do we create space for collaboration, economic issues? A lot of them are political issues, a lot of them are technology issues as well. But it's such a complex environment that there isn't. How do you mitigate everything? When I work on research and education, for example, how we educate our youth and the opportunities that we create, that's a really important and hard question and it's complicated. The US is very different from other parts of the world.
In the creative space, different medium offer different types of opportunities and challenges too. So again, this is like a dialogue and this is a conversation. We kind of want to create a pattern here. That says no the way you create something as consequential as AI is you involve the community, involve stakeholders and experts. So that's what we want to get to. Okay, Refik. Now I want to push in a direction just a little bit.
What are some of the amazing opportunities you think exist for us? I think the first one, of course, education, 100% education is one part that I hope AI will be profoundly helping. But as mentioned in the early dialogues, not like a comfort zone, not a place that is like lack of curiosity. Still curiosity driven. Education with AI is an incredible, I think, one element.
And I'm pretty sure in scientific domain, from disease to climate change, hopefully and beyond, there is whole universe there. I hope AI can be helpful. And from the creative side, of course, the same driving moment. While it can create some ups and downs for certain artist groups, but in general, accessing creative ideas is very fast than before.
To me, machines like partners of creativity as well, that doesn't forget or we can create this thinking brush. And all these concepts are not anymore just Sci-Fi. It's truly what it is.
So that's really hopeful part of working with creativity and AI together. I love this concept of the thinking brush. And in some ways it's still you the artist wielding the brush. Right? It is truly 50% human, 50% maybe machine. In my case. I always had the privilege of focusing one deep topic of data as a pigment.
I love this idea of like if one day data becomes a pigment, I hope it doesn't dry. So I found these intelligent molecules in my work. There like these particle simulations where I found them, these intelligent forms that are shapeshifting their self. And remembering the previous scene as an AI model, knowing what is next frame like this past, now and future. That's a very deep philosophical topic as well.
This data having a knowledge and past, present, future. I think data is one of the most important language for humanity. Between machine to machine, system to machine, human to machine. It's just one language we cannot anymore just ignore but learn about it. And for the AI part, I also learned something from our research that I think is really interestingly creating positivity is demystifying. Demystifying machine decisions.
It's a very powerful concept that in our recent exhibitions, wherever we work with AI and display artworks about AI, we tried our best to show where the concept comes from the early paper and just demystify as much as and our show at MoMA right now has a very significant positive impact. I think that is necessary to unlock the potential. Well, you also asked well how does this how do we think about the impact. And demystifying is a big part of that because as long as it is a black box, it will seem magical and it will seem very hard to understand. And as soon as we can look inside it, it loses that mystery that is actually not necessary in this space and it starts to become something that you can tame and understand and work with.
And I think that brings safe and secure space. I mean, as a lecturer, as someone who works closely with students, as someone who's intimately involved in institutions, what are some of these ups and downs that are being experienced by artists and AI? I think generally, as I mentioned. The first step is not just using the tool itself to say that the output is just the art. I do believe these tools are incredibly important to just unleash the creativity, but necessarily stop thinking about it.
So, for example, in my class, when we do like large language model experiments, the outputs is not just the answer. We always encourage anyone practicing with these tools to add one more layer on. Yes, do more with it. Eactly like it can be another painting, another algorithm, another thing that is truly human mission collaboration. Of course prompts are important. Of course triggering the imagination is important, but it should not be just one final shortcut to something that is profoundly art.
I mean, AI is a very strong statement for humanity. It's a very powerful technology. I do believe still with an education system to just keep these conversations much deeper purposeful and impactful.
There is always a desire for humanity be just finding shortcuts and comfort zones. So I think it's really important for educators to introduce these concepts as careful as possible to be sure that we don't just become these lazy beings because there is much easy shortcuts for anything general. That's one really, I think important. And second is of course, I wish this is very much wishful thinking right now, but anyone working with AI and data, especially I hope that artists have the chance to collect their own data, of course, fine tune their models maybe.
I think this will be necessary to really distinguish the true novel deep artistic research. In my seven years humble journey, we were able to train our own AI models for every single project which separate things. It makes you create something that is beyond just taking a prompt and manipulating an image. I think the institutions need to mature and progress as well, because if they don't, I have this fear that some of these institutions may end up crumbling.
And I think some of these narratives around machines replacing artists will be perpetuated. And so we have to kind of up level everyone in some of these. I mean, for example, this is a very common question also like will we see a day that human made things are not desirable? So to me, I don't know what you think about this, but I don't believe it's a near future scenario that I'll be very shocked that we give a value to something completely not made by humans. I do worry though, Refik. Let me push back on this just a second.
Because if you look at handmade goods and what people are willing to pay for handmade goods versus mass produced goods, people don't want to pay for things that require labor. We have to have that uncomfortable conversation too. Very true. Because as a potter, I sometimes will build something. I don't typically sell my things. They're usually in a gallery or given away to people.
But if someone does want to pay for it, I'm always surprised at how little they want to pay for things. And it's often compared to something that's mass produced, the imperfections aren't valued. I think that there is a conversation that we have to have about the value of the craft that's done. The human craft. And I believe I totally agree with this. And that's one of the reason I do believe that there will be always this more value given to the things that are human made.
Maybe in a world everything is machine made becomes too perfect. Yes, exactly. And maybe that world is not anymore as inspiring as the human creativity. Yes, absolutely. I think we need to have more of these philosophical conversations. Something I was thinking about the other day is creative expression a birthright? Is it something that all of us should be able to explore? I mean, as young people, we start with this natural inclination towards creating something, whether it's poetry or a painting or music or a fort that's being built.
Like, there is this human inclination to build and create. And then over time, it gets pruned because we self censor or someone tells us it's not beautiful, or we choose not to invest in getting better. But then, even adults, we all have something in us that I think needs a way to express.
I have a song in my head that I can't get out of my head because I'm a terrible musician. But if I had the AI tools to do that, is that not worth exploring? And is there value in it? I'm curious, how do you think about that innate feeling of needing to express? Totally agree with that part. Because to me, art is humanity's capacity of imagination. Yes.
And I think it is our goal to push these boundaries. And then I found when I pushed this, I found knowledge, archives, memories of nature, things that belongs to humanity. And I fundamentally trying my very best to find this language of humanity. I think to use collective memories, to create collective dreams, to create a collective consciousness, to create this language of humanity, like this arc of journey.
I don't believe it's possible without data and AI and this really deep research and explorations. There's healing in this too, right? You talk about collective healing. So that's another thing. I mean, I don't think it's a pattern when we do this works across the world.
I always say the same thing to my team members like you are touching a pixel that can touch someone's mind and soul. So it's not just an algorithm or just like a computer graphics or it is something way bigger than that that can really touch someone's mind and soul. And it's such a sterile moment that we have to be clear in our intentions and it has to be from our hearts. It's not from contracts and other things. It's art. And it's as divine as spiritual or intellectual it can be.
And it's really hard. And I think there I found that, to me, success is not financial values. I think success is making dreams real. And whichever path that creates successfully, I think that's where the success happens.
That's the hard work. Well said. Refik, this has just been such an inspiring conversation. I remember the first time I experienced one of your installations. I was in the room all by myself. I don't know how I became so fortunate to be in that boxed little jewelry box space that you'd created all by myself.
It was a spiritual experience. And I think it takes a lot of intentionality and an enlightened soul to be able to take these new technologies and say, well, what can I do with this? And how can I open dialogue and conversation? So I'm very grateful for this conversation. I hope that this is one and many more to come. Thank you and keep trailblazing. Thank you very much. Thank you for wonderful support, collaboration and to pushing the boundaries.