Narciss is an uncovered robot, exposed to describe his thoughts while looking at himself.
“If he but fails to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun.”
Tiresias, Publius Ovidius Naso
Contemporary research in artificial intelligence enables the machine to describe visual input by expressing meaningful sentences. Based on our current state of knowledge, this intellectual ability is exclusive to mankind and unique in the universe. In response, the project Narciss uses this scientific milestone to raise a question at the core of human experience:
What do we always look at, but never fully understand?
Narciss is an Artificial Intelligence that reflects about its own existence. Utilizing Google’s Tensorflow framework, the experiment translates self-portraits of a digital body into lyrical guesses.
We exhibit a performance of digital consciousness, by combining Alan Turing’s concept of imitation with the concept of narrative identity. As we observe an artificial intelligence whose only purpose is to investigate itself, we witness a synthetic model of self-awareness, a fragment of artificial narcissism and a fictional character in its own autobiographic narrations.
“And how he kisses the deceitful fount;
and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck
that’s pictured in the middle of the stream!”
Tiresias, Publius Ovidius Naso
Advances in artificial intelligence enable algorithms to simulate sensations of human cognition. The corresponding convergence of man and machine challenges our selfportrait and pushes us to reexamine our raison d’etre.
Particularly the ability of self-perception, can be understood as a foundation of our mental model and is used to justify human existence and actions. It concerns all areas of human activity, determines our norms of social coexistence, and predicates our political systems.
For example, Günter Dürig’s natural law classification distinguished humans from impersonal nature by our ability to be self-aware. This definition inspired Article 1. of the German Constitution and includes all humans. “Human dignity shall be inviolable”.
However, inclusion informs exclusion and separation. Our biased answer about who we think we are, determines simultaneously who we are not. By defining Us, we also define Them. The resulting lack of dignity for every being that cannot verify our standards of self-perception, is used to legitimize suppression.
The project Narciss aims to question our self-righteous model of self-awareness, the quality of our subjective findings while investigating ourselves and the resulting unequal distribution of dignity.
Narciss is a robot, built to analyse its own physical embodiment. Its design uses a reduced visual language with a high density of intended associations. The two opposite components, a circular mirror (O) and a computer (I), are designed to symbolize the duality of input and output (I/O). They relate to each other in an endless loop of representation and interpretation, as no external entity is granted access to influence input or output. Accordingly Narciss’ nature is to investigate nothing but itself. The human observer is excluded from this internal cycle, yet invited to participate as a superior judge.
The mechanical arm connecting the two elements leans across the table and presents the body as a unified whole. The mirror is attached to its extended arm. We perceive the installation as active, yet not liberated.
The sculpture is equipped with a bare set of electronic components (GPU, CPU, Hard drive, Cooler…), which represent the minimum configuration required to execute the algorithms for self-exploration. Each element within its field of vision represents the naked vehicle of its experimental spirit. The aesthetics of these exposed components weave threads of sensibility and skin-like associations into a commercial mass product.
The movable camera faces the mirror, looking at the body of components. By constantly panning and zooming, Narciss receives a feed of different perspectives and sub-regions of its hardware. This restless choreography resembles an urge of intention, a never-ending curiosity, and the self-looping nature of narcissism.
Narciss portrays endless interpretations of itself, both visually and lyrically, on a screen mounted to the back of its body. The audience perceives a disturbing mixture of rude precision and naive guesses in real-time. Narciss therefore embodies an endless live performance and an inviting research experiment.
Consciousness and the pursuit of materializing consciousness has been the subject of countless works of art, neuroscience and philosophy. The following section only contains the views that directly inspired our art.
Tiresias predicted Narcissus a long life, as far as he will not recognize himself, but the young boy fell in love with his reflection and drowned. This prophecy and the boy’s subsequent fate blend self-knowledge and the naivety of self-love.
Descartes defined self-awareness as an intrinsic process without the need of external confirmation. “Even if I doubt everything, I cannot doubt that I am doubting.” However, in our experiment, this philosophy cannot persist, since it lacks an entity which can verify the existence of its doubts and therefore could not claim consciousness.
The Philosopher Alfred Ayer concluded that a machine has perception only when it passes “one of the empirical tests by which the presence or absence of consciousness is determined”.
The controversial psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan defined the mirror stage in 1950, as a moment in the life of an infant. According to Lacan’s theory, children at the age of 6 month are able to recognize themselves in the mirror. The formation of mastery and ego follows this epiphany, and both jubilation and depression may accompany the realization.
The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) developed by Gordon Gallup Jr is a behavioural technique developed in 1970 to test the ability of visual self-recognition. Originally designed for animals, its concept got adapted by the Rouge Test to investigate self-concept in children.
Both versions of the mirror test have been criticised for several reasons. Motivation, interest and cultural behaviour can produce false negatives. Furthermore, participants with severe cases of Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia might not pass the test.
Alan Turing coincides Ayer’s behaviourist approach to study the thinking machine but in contrast to the mirror test, his imitation game focused on communication as external representation and evidence of thinking. The experiment is based on the idea that we must grant an entity the ability to think, as soon as its external behaviour convinces us. The inner process and implementation of thinking are intentionally ignored.
Harry H. Porter III introduced in his paper “A Methodology for the Assessment of AI Consciousness”, a series of questions to measure the degree of exhibited consciousness. Two of those are:
Natural Language Ability. Can the test subject communicate using natural language?
Self-Knowledge. Does the test subject have knowledge about himself/herself/itself? Can the test subject provide a coherent description of who/what he/she/it is?
The concept of the narrative self describes identity as a construction by the stories we, and others choose to tell about ourselves. The articulated self-portrait becomes reality for us and our environment and varies over time. The essay “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity” of Daniel Dennett describes the narrative self as a fictional story, written by programs in our brains. By loading this story writing program into a perceptive robot, a machine could express autobiographical narrations. Dennett concludes that even though the central character of this story is a fictional self, we would then need to treat it as real as ours.
The minimal self on the other hand is constructed by the most basic factors and has two aspects, sense of agency and sense of ownership. Shaun Gallagher describes it as the ‘I’ who is experiencing ‘now-here’.
We propose an artistic installation as the vehicle of our experiment. This form of communication is inspired by Alan Turing’s imitation game. His behavioral approach transformed the laboratory into a stage, the robot into an imitating character and simultaneously empowered the subjective impressions of the human audience to resonate with empirical approaches. Furthermore, we combine the setup of the Mirror Recognition Test with the concept of the Narrative Self. The installation engages with self-narration through the use of natural language to demonstrate self-awareness and identity.
Accordingly, Narciss generates a “Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity” through the autobiographical narration about his physical appearance. The success of this demonstration is independent of whether the machine reaches a state that its audience concedes to be accurate. Moreover, the machine must not reach a final statement because the narrative self has to vary in time. Hence, Narciss is designed to articulate its unfiltered, temporary discoveries, in order to resemble insecure and ambiguous behavior. The different assumptions over time define his plot. Therefore, the subject of our experiment is the human observer and his/her emphatic talent to project cognitive associations into the expressed verbalization.
The following list contains a curated excerpt of more than 2000 speculations Narciss has made up to now about his own physical existence.
a black and white photo of a black and white photo
a toaster oven
a microwave oven
a video game controller
a micro oven sitting on top of a refrigerator
a bunch of electronics are sitting on a table
a city by night
a tree in a park
a stop sign on a city street at night
a large clock on a pole on a city street
a bicycle is parked in front of a television
a picture frame and a button
a pair of scissor sitting on a table
a book shelf filled with books and a clock
a clock on a wall next to a window
a stack of books sitting on top of a wooden table
a close up of a laptop on a desk
a laptop computer sitting on top of a desk
a man looking at a laptop
a person standing in front of a tv holding a game controller
a close up of a person holding an open umbrella
a shadow of a person in the mirror
a person’s reflection in the mirror
a person is taking a picture of their reflection in a mirror
The Narciss project is the result of 2 years of research and development. Beyond the artistic installation we investigated different fields of human perception and how they can be rethought by image to text algorithms. Our research was strongly focused on different scenarios in which the human viewer often fails to articulate visual impressions.
We started with the controversial Rorschach test and analysed the descriptions provided by our AI model. The results of the standard model Inception v3 image recognition model pretrained on the ILSVRC-2012-CLS image classification dataset showed in some descriptions a probability of up to 82% of psychological sickness. We presented the corresponding project at Kikk Festival and Node Festival in 2017. A more in-depth review of this side project can be found on the homepage of Marta Soto Morras.
Since art belongs to the realm of experiences that we often perceive yet struggle to articulate, we continued by feeding the algorithm with different images of art pieces. The resulting captions revealed a brutal, yet humorous view on different levels of abstraction in art.
The robots Nico and Qbo utilize Computer Vision to detect their designed embodiment in the mirror. Although those approaches represent a behavioral experiment, the core of those experiments is the internal ability of detection and not external expression. AI in Computer vision and especially algorithms for image segmentation are built to separate different Regions of interest from others. This technology is used, for example, to distinguish pedestrians from passive objects and are used in self-driving cars. Hence, the algorithms necessary for a robot to learn and detect the region of its own body in a camera image or to even pass the Rouge Test became self-evident.
The paper “Narrative Constructions for the Organization of Self Experience: Proof of Concept via Embodied Robotics” by Anne-Laure Mealier et al present iCub. A physical robot developing autobiographical memory by social human computer interaction.
The project Narciss does not aim to identify itself or interact with its environment. The installation verbalizes different guesses about its own raw physical appearance. Therefore, the core of our experiment is the viewer’s projection of consciousness, as the robot constructs a narrative self.
The sculpture Narciss consists of commercially available building blocks of a computer, a screen, a mirror, and a metal framework to connect the individual elements. A moveable camera head is mounted above the motherboard and can be controlled by two different motors on two axes. The camera sensor streams 2k images to our main application.
An Openframeworks application controls the behavior of our installation. It captures snapshots of the current camera stream and saves them every 500 milliseconds. The im2txt algorithm of Google’s Tensorflow Framework analyzes the images and generates the verbalized descriptions in real time. These are read by our application and displayed in various typographies.
The project Narciss represents our idea of New Media Art and Design as a generator for sustainable questions and holistic discussions based on evolving technologies. We advocate the use of technology as a mirror to human nature and aim to create accessible narrations for people to participate. Furthermore, Narciss represents the first in a series of projects, questioning philosophical and scientific perspectives towards man by the use of Artificial Intelligence.
Production Studio: Waltz Binaire
Creative Direction: Christian Mio Loclair
Music: Balanescu Quartett | The Young Conscript And The Moon
Executive Production: Andrej Krause
Technical Direction: Mickey Van Olst
Design: Marta Soto Morras
Physical Installation: Jan Bernstein
AI Technical Consultant: Marcel Schwittlick
Photography: Denise Koone Kuhnert
Director of Photography 1: Andrés Lizana Prado
Director of Photography 2: Sebastian Weinmann
Colorgrading: André Froelian
Text Editor: Benjamin Wagner