Amazon-sponsored artwork that ‘learns’ debuts at the Smithsonian

WASHINGTON The artificial intelligence at the heart of a new art exhibition, “me + you”, does not necessarily judge you, but it analyzes and interprets what you have to say.

Sponsored by Amazon Web Services, the sculpture by artist Suchi Reddy listens to what you have to say about the future and reproduces your emotions in a display of colored lights and patterns.

The artwork is the centerpiece of a new exhibit in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, which opens to the public for the first time in 20 years. The exhibition, called Futures, opens on November 20th.

Viewers are invited to interact with the sculpture, which listens to the words “My future is …” on several circular listening posts integrated into the sculpture.

The words and emotions behind them are then reinterpreted as a pattern of colored lights. On a very basic level, positive emotions tend to translate into soothing blends of blue, green, and purple. Expressions such as anger evoke a cascade of red.

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Regardless of the feeling, Reddy said, “I want to show all human emotions as beautiful.”

And interpretations will evolve and become more nuanced over time as artificial intelligence advances. Swami Sivasubramanian, vice president of Amazon Machine Learning at Amazon Web Services, said the artwork incorporates sentiment analysis that not only decodes the meaning of words, but the emotions of a speaker behind the words.

Sivasubramanian said Amazon contributed 1,200 hours of programming to serve as the backbone of the artwork’s machine learning.

“Machine learning is one of our most transformative technologies,” he said. “I’m excited about people engaging in machine learning in an artistic context.”

The artwork uses various aspects of machine learning, including basic speech-to-text technology.

An accompanying site lets people enter their thoughts over the internet and receive a visual interpretation of their feelings, which is also added to the archive.

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In an era of deep skepticism about data collected by Big Tech, Reddy and her team were careful to avoid data collection of any kind other than people’s thoughts about the future. No video has been recorded and there is nothing that traces people’s expressions back to them, Reddy said.

Other highlights of the exhibition include costumes from the Marvel Studios movie “Eternals”, part of an interactive exhibit showing how movies help us imagine our future, and objects, including an experimental Alexander Graham Bell phone and the first full-scale Buckminster Fuller geodetic dome built in North America.

“In a world that feels eternally tumultuous, there is power in imagining the future we want, not the future we fear,” said Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building.

The exhibition is scheduled to remain open through July 6th. Eventually, the “me + you” sculpture will be moved to Amazon’s new HQ2 headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

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