Ars Electronica Festival 2017: Where Science Meets Art

Ars Electronica Festival 2017: Where Science Meets Art

POSTCITY Linz

The Ars Electronica Festival brings together artists, scientists, and technologists in Linz, Austria every September to create a dialogue around important questions regarding the future. This year’s theme, “Artificial Intelligence: The Other I” investigates the effects of advancing technologies beyond just the economic and social realms.

POSTCITY facilities decorated with flora.

The central location of the festival, POSTCITY Linz, is a former Postal Service logistics facility. It plays along with the tensions that are investigated between human and machine, inverting our mental frameworks by inviting attendees into the belly of the (former) industrial beast. The festival itself offers an extraordinary array of experiences, from exhibitions to musical performances to lectures, many of them interactive. With staff making their way through the crowds via kick scooters, there is a sense of playfulness — the festival as playground to explore future possibilities.

Neurotransmitter 3000

Within this space, Daniel de Bruin set up his “Neurotransmitter 3000,” which interprets biometric data such as heart rate, muscle tension, body temperature, etc. to drive the movement of the machine. A feedback loop is created when the body responds to the Neurotransmitter.

The underground levels, which were hushed, cool, and dark, felt like the setting of a dystopian science fiction movie. This was where we could also find American Arts Incubator artist Amy Karle’s work, "Regenerative Reliquary." Amy’s piece intersected with the festival’s theme perfectly: a generative work of art which raises the questions of what it means to be human in an era where we have the ability to enhance and heal our bodies with technology, blurring the lines between what is natural versus artificial (here's a cool 30-second video of her piece).

During an afternoon symposium focused on “Ethics, Philosophy and Spirituality,” a talk by Buddhist monk with experience in software startups, Zenbo Hidaka, gave an interesting perspective on technological singularity. He invited us to use it as a moment to reflect on what intelligence means in the context of being human, which he approached by highlighting the dichotomy between 智 (thought, wisdom, philosophy) and 知 (cognition, knowledge, science).

Another surprising moment occurred when I came across “White Collar Crime Risk Zones,” which uses machine learning to predict where financial crimes may happen across the United States. While policing applications usually target “street-crime,” disproportionately targeting low-income communities of color, this turns this concept on its head by focusing on the disproportionate amassing of wealth by certain sections of society.

Using creative tools to reshape how information is conveyed was a topic that came up again during a serendipitous encounter with a Belgian scientist on the tram. He had been a climate change scientist for years, and was energized by the possibilities of collaborations with artists in order to best communicate and design solutions from scientific findings and technological advances. It reinforced my thoughts on how critical it was to create a dialogues across disciplines, and how art has the power to make us question our paradigms, which is critical in a time of accelerating changes in our world.