AI “raises all sorts of questions” for animals and the environment, says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

The proliferation of artificial intelligence poses major challenges for the natural world, according to tech-focused artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, whose latest work uses neural networks to replicate birdsong.

The audience is expected to question what is real and what is false in Ginsberg’s installation Machine Auguries, recently opened at the Toledo Museum of Art in the United States.

The work features an imitation of a “dawn chorus” composed of real birds singing along with convincing artificial intelligence (AI)-generated counterparts.

Ginsberg told Dezeen that he used AI for “this rather perverted thing” in order to draw attention to what he perceives as complacency over biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, which he believes is exacerbated by a culture of techno-optimism that is shifting attention towards AI.

Photo of a dark room partially lit with blue light for the Machine Wishes installation
The Machine Auguries installation replicates elements of a “dawn chorus” of bird songs

“Imagine if the amounts invested in these technologies were instead invested in protecting our environment, the environment that keeps us alive for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Investments of that scale would protect billions of people from a disaster that is already unfolding.”

“We have to ask: Who stands to benefit from the implementation of AI technologies,” he added. “And they’re not necessarily technologies of peace.”

The artwork has trained AI to sing similar to birds

Ginsberg has spent more than a decade using technologies ranging from algorithms and simulations to engineered DNA and bacteria in his works and has conducted extensive research in the field of synthetic biology, but Machine Auguries is his first work to focus directly on artificial intelligence.

The audio-based artwork was made using a type of AI called a generative adversarial network, or GAN, which Ginsberg explains employs two different neural networks: a generator and a discriminator, to get better at imitating the singing of the birds.

Artificial neural networks are the systems that enable advanced AI models to learn.

One network generates output in the style of the training data it has been fed – in this case audio from field recordings of birdsong – and the other evaluates it against the same data, starting a feedback loop that continues for a certain number of days.

“The first day what you get is just noise,” Ginsberg said. “And after a series of days of training and learning, you start bringing out more and more realistic songs.”

In other words, GAN engages in something akin to call and response, akin to how baby birds learn to sing, which is what attracted Ginsberg to use it in his artwork.

Machine Wishes made its debut at London’s Somerset House in 2019, but Ginsberg says she was able to make it on a much larger scale in Toledo, accessing a library of more than 100,000 field records of birds common in the local area .

The final composition – with separate songs for 11 different species – is set in an immersive spatial environment where the lighting simulates the colors of dawn.

Also, the technology improved so much between the two artworks that it could use longer audio clips for training data. It dramatically changes the experience of the artwork, she says, because now the AI ​​birdsong is, to the human ear, indistinguishable from the real thing.

AI “raises all sorts of questions” about other species

The making of Machine Auguries raised a number of ethical questions for Ginsberg, which he began to unravel in an interview with researcher Karen Bakker, posted on the Toledo Museum of Art’s website.

One current popular use for AI and audio data is to try to decode animal languages, which Bakker explores in his recent book The Sounds of Life: How Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants, and which according to Ginsberg is the fruit of moral complexity.

For example, there is the question of whether animals should have just as much right to data privacy as humans.

“It raises all sorts of questions about the right to hear: wiretapping, ownership of these datasets and administration,” Ginsberg told Dezeen. “Should biodiversity records be managed by the people whose lands these organisms live on? Should there be indigenous management, for example?”

Photo of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, smiling and standing outdoors in leafy surroundings
Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has concerns about how animal data will be used by AI

This becomes important because depending on who has access and control, the data could be used for very different purposes. A translation of what elephants say, for example, would be appealing to conservationists and poachers alike.

“If we can understand what animals are saying, that means we can potentially protect them,” Ginsberg said. “But it also means we can find them and exploit them.”

“Artificial intelligence in this area in particular raises many questions that may not be at the forefront of our minds. But as we tackle biodiversity and climate emergencies, this is something we need to think about.”

The moratorium was meant to stop technology from ‘leading us very quickly to dangerous places’

Given his concerns about the use of artificial intelligence, Ginsberg supports calls for a moratorium on its development, such as one proposed in a recent open letter by tech leaders including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

He points out that there is precedent for this in the field of biology, which faced huge upheavals in the 1970s with the emergence of genetic engineering.

There, scientists asked and were able to put in place a worldwide pause on experiments combining the DNA of different organisms. They then met at the Asilomar Conference in 1975, where they discussed risks and drafted guidelines for future work that continue to be observed.

“We simply don’t have policies in place that can protect society from the current, imminent, and yet-to-be-manifested risks of AI,” Ginsberg said. “The ramifications today are also extremely concerning, from deepfake porn to its impact on elections.”

Photo of the Machine Wishes installation at the Toledo Museum of Art, with visitors seated in a dark room softly lit by overhead lighting
Ginsberg’s work is on display at the Toledo Museum of Art

“With AI in 2023, the ‘precautionary principle’ is not in use,” he continued. “The speed of change in technology, compared to the lack of agility of democratic decision-making, is leading us very fast to a dangerous place that, perhaps most importantly, most of us cannot fully predict or understand.”

If the technology is to be used, Ginsberg would like to see it used to benefit the environment or other species. At the moment he perceives it as a danger to them.

“A copy of nature tricks us into thinking nature is safe and can be ‘rebooted’ — think extinction,” Ginsberg said. “These technologies reassure us that we can recreate, that we can cling to, that we can archive reality, and that’s not possible. Without the natural environment, there is nothing.”

Machine Wishes: Toledo is on display at the Toledo Museum of Art from April 29 to November 26, 2023. Check out the Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

Illustration by Selina Yau


This article is part of Dezeen’s AItopia series, which explores the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on design, architecture and humanity, both now and in the future.

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