What happens when you let a computer generated version of yourself take over part of your life?
What happens when you let a computer generated version of yourself take over part of your life? Laura Davis investigates in the name of art
REPLICANT – it’s a scaly, wriggly sort of word that makes you immediately suspicious. The dictionary gives two definitions: 1. A genetically engineered or artificial being created as an exact replica of a particular human being. 2. A disparaging term for something that imitates or resembles another.
My replicant definitely does not fit into the first definition. It is not an exact replica of me – for starters it’s friendlier, almost uncomfortably so, catching people unawares in its chattiness. In comparison to my modern British still-ever-so-slightly-stiff-upper-lip way of conducting myself, my replicant appears to lack boundaries.
Because of this, and the embarrassment it has caused me, it is entirely deserving of disparagement.
My replicant was created by Swiss artist Matthieu Cherubini for a university project exploring social media. The naturally shy student designed a piece of software that would manage his Facebook and Twitter accounts on his behalf. For 40 days it assumed his identity, chatting to his followers and posting links to interesting websites on his wall.
And it was more popular than him. While the bot was in control, Cherubini’s Twitter follower count more than doubled from 25 to 68. The artist had tweeted only 46 times during the 20 months he operated the account himself. The more sociable replicant tweeted 376 times.
A short film explaining the results of the experiment will be shown in FACT’s Robots and Avatars exhibition, which opens at the Wood Street arts centre tomorrow.
In contrast, my bot had control of my Facebook account for just a few hours before it began wreaking havoc. With no insider knowledge of which so-called “friends” are also such in real life as opposed to those whose friendships I have accepted out of politeness or because they are work contacts, it proceeded to get in touch with people at apparent random.
Firstly, it pinched an out-of-date status from my Twitter stream, which looked daft freshly reposted as my Facebook status a few days later. Then it sneaked on to my sister’s wall and posted: “Hey Anna how are you today?”.
I knew exactly how she was. We had texted each other just that morning and even so I wouldn’t be using social media to enquire.
“I don’t like this bot. It creepily popped up on my page and chatted me up,” Anna replied after I had explained.
Next, the bot posted a link to an Alan Partridge clip on the wall of a boy, now man, I was friends with when I was five and haven’t really spoken to since, and asked after a girl who wasn’t even really – if we’re both honest – a close friend when we were at school.
I spent the next two hours scouring all messages on every single one of my Facebook friends’ walls for further evidence of misbehaviour. I didn’t dare risk handing over control of my Twitter account.
To be fair to Cherubini, I had been warned. The troubleshooting section of his website responds to the problem “My bot is a bit/totally rubbish” with “It wasn’t the initial aim of the project to build a performant bot”.
The experience has also made me question why I am friends with so many people on Facebook who I could barely describe as acquaintances.
The Replicants project is just one element of Robots and Avatars, which has been co-curated by FACT and London-based interdisciplinary design collective body>data>space.
The exhibition explores the increasing overlap of the virtual and physical worlds and our own ready acceptance of new technologies.
“We wanted to focus on how the living, breathing body will be complemented by technologies rather than us always having to adjust ourselves,” says body>data>space creative director Ghislaine Boddington.
Robots and Avatars began three years ago as a research project, run through investigative workshops with school pupils and people of all ages to find out their opinions about technology.
In collaboration with FACT, the organisation put out a call for ideas that would form the exhibition and received 200 applications from artists, scientists and others interested in exploring the future of work and play.
“We’re putting the body first so some of the artists are asking that if this big wearable computer is attached to your body and it drags you around the space, how does it feel to surrender control to a machine? Others are asking if you are reflected in a virtual world as an avatar what are the positives about that for work of the future, linking with colleagues, not having to travel so much, being eco-friendly.”
Featured works include Blind Robot, a robotic hand that feels your face and draws it on the wall behind you. This new work by Louis-Philippe Demers will now join the exhibition after the opening date as its completion has been delayed.
Another is a virtual world, Visions of Our Communal Dreams, created by Michael Takeo Magruder with the help of pupils from Weatherhead High School in Wallasey, which you step into as an avatar (virtual version of yourself).
While the creations featured in Robots and Avatars seem straight out of science fiction rather than a conceivable part of every day life, they could be only a short step away.
Some major companies are already using virtual worlds as training environments, while in Japan there are 14 companies making robots exclusively for the care of senior citizens.
Our children are already grasping almost from birth technologies that seemed the stuff of fantasy when we were growing up.
“There’s a wonderful clip on You Tube where a baby tries to use a Vogue magazine like an iPad,” says Boddington. “She’s quite obviously moving her finger in a way she would do if it were a touchscreen.”
ROBOTS and Avatars is at FACT from tomorrow to May 27. Sign up for your own replicant at http://awd.site.nfoservers.com/replicants/