Interview

James Bridle
Understand the Umwelt of
Robots Human-AI coexistence

DESIGN VISION is an original design research project at Sony that predicts societal trends and explores the course that the future might take.
In this initiative, Creative Center designers themselves conduct research and interviews, leading to analysis and proposals.
vIn 2021, DESIGN VISION implemented backcasting through the new technique of Sci-Fi prototyping to investigate possibilities for a better future.
This is a reprint of an interview article from that research report with writer and artist James Bridle,
who continues to inquire about the relationship between technology and humans.

James Bridle James Bridle is a writer, artist and technologist. Their artworks have been commissioned by galleries and institutions and exhibited worldwide and on the internet. Their writing on literature, culture and networks has appeared in magazines and newspapers including Wired, the Atlantic, the New Statesman, the Guardian, and the Financial Times. They are the author of 'New Dark Age' (2018) and ‘Ways of Being’ (2022), and they wrote and presented "New Ways of Seeing" for BBC Radio 4 in 2019. Their work can be found at http://jamesbridle.com.

Related theme from the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021: "CONVIVIAL AI"

The DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 conceptualized the future world of 2050 using Sci-Fi prototyping. By backcasting from that, the report derived four themes to focus on for the future.*1
One of those themes is "CONVIVIAL AI."
How can humanity coexist and be convivial with AI and robotics? Because this technology can possess autonomy and intelligence, its position in future society must be considered from a completely different angle than previously.
To search for clues, we researched better relationships between humans and technology from the perspective of conviviality (autonomous coexistence) advocated by philosopher and thinker Ivan Illich. We interviewed James Bridle, a key person in relation to this theme.

*1 Future Prospects Led by Sci-Fi and Design: DESIGN VISION 2021 Designer Symposium

Understand the Umwelt of
Robots Human-AI coexistence

Growing up in the 1980s James Bridle witnessed firsthand how new technologies, especially the Internet, became increasingly interconnected with the real world. His studies in this field began with this casual observation, but he soon hit upon some challenges—which are not always positive—lurking in the depths of this digital world. Is it actually possible to coexist with AI? And what would that entail?
(Reprinted from the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 booklet published in October 2021)

You have been speaking about the New Aesthetic for some time. Where did this concept come from?

The New Aesthetic is an idea that is about ten years old. It started when I began noticing an increasing crossover between the digital world and the physical world, like buildings that look almost pixelated. It made me think about the ways people understand the digital world, how we think about virtual spaces and AI, and how the physical environment is shaped by the latest technology.

I started to understand that the digital world and the physical world are not separate at all, but are layered on top of each other. By seeing the world in this way, we can start to unpick the social, political, and geopolitical structures that shape both the digital and the physical world.

In other words, you began to see the challenges inherent to technology and a digital world.

Exactly. One thing I observed is how our technologies reproduce our existing biases and societal expectations. For example, facial recognition systems could only recognize faces of certain race at first. Technological limitations of the cameras themselves played a part, but the underlying factor was that not a lot of diversity within the members working in the companies that developed the systems. As a result, people are making unconscious decisions for these technologies that end up having a deep impact on the physical world.

James Bridle’s video work Autonomous Trap 001 (2017). An attempt to trap autonomous vehicles using a circle created with a dashed line and solid line, meaning "no entry" and "do not enter" in traffic rules.

You wrote a book, New Dark Age, based on your work on the New Aesthetic.

I was born in 1980 so I grew up with the Internet. I am part of the generation that watched it rapidly grow and expand from the early 90s. The Internet gives us access to an enormous amount of information, but it does not help us think better or make better decisions— it is doing the opposite. What we see is the concentration of knowledge and power in fewer and fewer hands. Conspiracy theories are emblematic of this. Even though we have access to all this information, we find ourselves divided by competing fundamentalisms, in an ever growing sense of anger, confusion, and fear.

In the book, I use the analogy of plumbing to illustrate how people relate to technology. I am not a plumber, but I know enough about plumbing to deal with flooding or a problem with the toilet. We need to understand how the things around us work to be able to survive. In the same way, it is important to have some basic knowledge of the Internet and AI and to not blindly accept them.

James Bridle’s video work Gradient Ascent (2016). On the topic of the gradient ascent method, an algorithm used in autonomous travel, the film layers images of a self-driving car going up Mount Parnassus in Greece, a symbol of knowledge, with thoughts on mythology and technology.

AI is essentially a black box to many. Do you think there is a way for us to coexist with AI?

I am fascinated with autonomous vehicles; I even set out to build a self-driving car. I could never build a whole car, but I could write some code and train the system for one. It was really about seeing what other possibilities existed within the system, instead of just setting down a bunch of rules. It was a way to collaborate with the AI. After all, we share the ability to read the world around us, whether through our eyes or the cameras attached to the car.

In biology, the German word umwelt, or "self-centered world," refers to all of the ways in which an organism perceives the world around them. A self-driving car also has an umwelt—its own representation of the world that in some ways overlaps with a human’s and in some ways is radically different. Understanding both aspects is crucial, because it opens up the possibility of cooperation and coexistence with AI and allows humans and AIs to move forward toward a shared, desired future.

James Bridle’s video work Homo Sacer (2014; background is an installation at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology [FACT] in Liverpool, UK). The film raises questions about the relationship between nations and human rights using the image of a virtual assistant quoting phrases from sources such as UN charters, international laws, and international treaties as well as written statements by the British government.

What should designers and engineers keep in mind when developing new technology?

Designers often try to make the user’s experience as simple, easy, and seamless as possible. I understand this from a business perspective, but it means that a huge amount is hidden behind the scenes. And I think that has consequences for society. I do not have the answers, but I am sure there must be a way to educate people about the world in which they are engaged that is not based on hiding everything away.

When you are developing something, you have to step back to the basics, because the only way a person can truly release their creativity is if they fully understand the material they are working with. There is a saying in the arts: real artists mix their own paint. You do not just buy a bunch of paint from a shop; you have to understand the qualities of the materials you are working with, because that allows you to create new things that nobody else has thought of. I think that is fundamental to creativity and the imagination.

(Interview conducted online on August 4, 2021)

Interviewer’s commentFumitaka Ozaki, Research Producer, Creative Center, Sony Group

"Multispecies ethnography," which considers what humans are like through their relationships to other types of living things, is cited as one field of note in the current DESIGN VISION.
The beyond-species joint development of humans and AI discussed in James Bridle’s interview relates not only to the "CONVIVIAL AI" theme mentioned at the beginning of this article but to the "MULTISPECIES" theme formulated to think about our coexistence with plants and animals as well as things like AI and robots. It will also connect to the expansion of possibilities in the consciousness of what is human in itself. *2

*2 Future Prospects Led by Sci-Fi and Design: DESIGN VISION 2021 Designer Symposium