LINZ, Austria – Is artificial intelligence a threat or an opportunity?
That question will fuel one of the central debates at Europe’s largest festival for art and digital culture, Ars Electronica, which kicked off Thursday in this Austrian city and will run until Monday.
AI was mere science fiction a half-century ago but now occupies a place in our daily lives, whether in the form of mobile apps that anticipate users’ wants and needs or brake assist functions that help motorists avoid collisions.
This year’s festival in Linz, a city 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Vienna, will bring together more than 1,400 artists, designers and social activists from 45 countries.
Its theme is “Out of the Box: The Midlife Crisis of the Digital Revolution,” a title chosen, organizers say, because of its multiple, varied meanings.
“Out of the box” is a phrase that can refer to ready-made products that can be used immediately but which strip consumers of the “right to decide for ourselves how the data and information they generate is used,” the Ars Electronica Festival’s Web site says.
That phrase, however, also refers to the idea of thinking differently or unconventionally, as well as to a kind of Pandora’s box that was opened with the digital revolution and to the need for citizens to get out of their comfort zones and start taking responsibility for shaping the future.
This year’s Ars Electronica Festival aims to encourage people to take a step back at this midlife phase of the digital revolution and examine the technological and social crossroads we face in today’s world.
More than 500 activities and sessions – round-table discussions, exhibitions, concerts, debates, installations, screenings and conferences – are intended to foster reflection on the positive and negative consequences of the digital revolution over the past several decades.
“Until now, digital transformation has (meant the) digitalization of the industrial world. What we did before without computers we now do digitally, and this includes our social lives. But now we’re starting to digitalize our decision-making,” Gerfried Stocker, the festival’s artistic director, said.
“Even if the reality of independent artificial intelligence is still far in the future, we’ve started to make digital systems independent, and in a certain sense we’ve gone from automation to autonomy,” he added.
That evolution raises several questions: How much autonomy should machines have? Will a time come when AI not only helps human beings but replaces them? What defines us as humans if a machine can perform our tasks?
The organizers hope this debate will spur citizens to take a more active role in designing the future technological model and not settle for being “passive consumers,” a reality they say has led to “an unbridled data economy” dominated by powerful technology companies.
“We should use this time of crisis in the digital revolution to reformulate our questions about the future and focus not only on what technology offers but also on what we want to do with it,” Stocker said.
One of the main events of this year’s festival – and one in keeping with its spirit of experimentation – will be a concert on Friday night in which long-standing Ars Electronica partner Bruckner Orchestra Linz will perform a version of Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).
That late-Romantic composer died before the symphony was fully elaborated, but it has recently been completed using AI.
As a lead-in to the orchestra’s performance, choreographer Silke Grabinger will interact artistically as solo dancer with a configuration of several industrial robots playing one puppet dancer.
On Saturday afternoon, Prix forums will be held to introduce the Prix Ars Electronica prize-winners in the categories of Computer Animation, Digital Musics and Sound Art, and Artificial Intelligence and Life Art and provide a space for these artists to elaborate on their oeuvre and current work.