Kunstwerk The Spirit Machine
Kunstwerk The Spirit Machine

Looking back: The Spirit Machine

The AI-based artwork The Spirit Machine made quite an impression over the past three years. Its position in the Maria Montessori building in the entrance above the staircase made it unmissable whilst also leaving a lasting impression. How do the artist, the scientist and the art committee look back on the exhibition? And what do we take away from the artwork?

Experimenting with Technology 

Jeroen van der Most, creator of The Spirit Machine, explains the thoughts behind the artwork. "The idea came about after Radboud University was looking for art for its new Maria Montessori building. Since the AI department is located in this building, we also wanted to use AI for the artwork. Together with Gabriëlle Ras, PhD student in AI, I realised an AI system inspired by texts by Maria Montessori." It turned out to be the perfect time to experiment with this, as developments in technology allowed Van der Most to use the so-called GPT3, the precursor of the now well-known ChatGPT. 

The quotes on the board came about by following two principles: the topics were chosen from Radboud University research, and the quotes themselves were formulated in an inspiring Maria Montessori style. In doing so, Van der Most and Ras tried to make the quotes as gender-neutral as possible. "When it was about a teacher or student, Maria Montessori always referred to the 'he' form. We made sure the artwork only referred to they/them." The system additionally checked itself for plagiarism and included filters to avoid potentially offensive texts. 

Van der Most looks back on it with satisfaction. "I think it was a successful project. It ran for three years, which is a very long time for a work of art like this. The idea was to put people in touch with Maria Montessori in a new way. You got in touch, as it were, with someone who lived far in the past before us. I still find this way of communication super cool." In the future, Van der Most will continue experimenting with innovative forms of AI, hoping to continue to excite audiences with this new art form. 

Varying Reactions 

The artwork provoked varying reactions, including from Pim Haselager. Professor of Societal Implications of Artificial Intelligence, Haselager, looked at the artwork from both his personal and scientific perspectives. "At first, I thought the quotes were funny, reviving a certain style and time I liked, especially since new developments were discussed from Maria Montessori's perspective based on the texts." Yet the first impression turned to a more critical attitude. Haselager indicated: "After a year, the quotes became outdated. The artwork no longer brought anything innovative. For instance, I noticed that I no longer looked back at the screens." 

According to Haselager, the artwork proved unpredictable. Based on a whole bunch of data, The Spirit Machine produced new texts, but unfortunately, this occasionally went wrong. "Viewers were left with an uncomfortable feeling from the artwork. Some quotes were too provocative and seemed to cross a line." Do these negative outliers outweigh all the positive, inspiring and motivating quotes? According to Haselager, the artwork itself shows the problem. "The AI system itself does not understand what it is about. In a nutshell, the system is just pretending, making predictions from texts based on human input. In this case, it didn't always work out. What can we learn from this? These misses reinforce the need for meaningful human control and show that human thinking is necessary in AI." 

The Power of Humans 

According to Haselager, AI systems can help us understand how we work as humans. Why is a human different from an AI system? "By examining what an AI system can and cannot do, the contrast becomes apparent with human capability." Haselager is critical of AI's use of self-expression. While he can understand that AI-generated art can also touch people, he hopes that the unique human perspective is not lost. "A human can feel, perceive and express themselves. Therefore, human art often has an intention, and we can see a message in the work. I hope we keep asking ourselves questions. How do we deal with such rapid technological developments? How can we make use of AI without compromising ourselves? As humans, we all have a unique perspective, and this is a strength no AI system can match!" 

Man as an Unpredictable Factor 

Alphons Backx, Chairperson of the Faculty Art Committee at the time, wants to nuance the unpredictability mentioned by Haselager. Invariably, the unpredictable factor proved to be man rather than 'the machine'. "In fact, one quote was found to cross a boundary. However, this quote appeared to escape human control, one of the filters Jeroen mentions. For the other report, the actual quote turned out to be different from what the reader thought they had seen in passing, and in conversation with this reporter, this was adequately clarified. In that light, it would be better to say that some quotes were too long and complex to be fully appreciated within the 'shutter time' by a passing human. The 'machine' did no more than what it was instructed to do but also held up a mirror to us." 

"Jeroen especially emphasises the value of this work from Maria Montessori's perspective. I would add the perspective of our still-evolving perception of AI. The Spirit Machine has made each of us reflect over the three years on the expectations and emotions surrounding Artificial Intelligence and that this process, as well as the genesis of AI as a science, is still in full swing; the above makes it clear." 

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Organizational unit
Faculty of Social Sciences