More selected projects

Anatomy of an AI

This projection mapping piece was a visual exploration of the hidden anatomical elements of AI, including obscured labour costs, data costs and environmental and ecological degradation, all ideas laid out in Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler's paper/anatomical map 'Anatomy of an AI System'.

produced by: Lou Terry


My initial decision was what surface to project on.  In Kate and Vladan's paper, sierpinski triangles (a potentially infinite structure of smaller triangles within triangles) are used as a visual metapahor and also a pragmatic diagram of the hidden anatomical structure of an AI (Amazon's Alexa specifically).  This was therefore a shape I particularly wanted to code into my piece, and so the Olga Kit (a surface made for projection mapping assembled from triangular faces) seemed right.  I also wanted my piece to be unfamiliar, and abstract (which the Olga Kit was), to mirror the nature of hidden anatomical elements of AI systems.  Below is the final structure we built from the Olga Kit.

Concept and background research

I wanted to communicate Kate and Vladan's ideas in a visually abstract way.  For me, some of the most effective projection mapping projects from previous years made use of darkness and negative space.  I wanted too to do this, and so began the first section by only projecting brief flashes on certain faces of the Olga Kit.  In this way the overall shape of the Olga is obscured, you only see part of it at any one time - much like Amazon's Echo, which exists in the physical world as a small, contained and benign cylindrical object, but whose underlying structure in fact includes much more.  From the vast amounts of resource extraction and environmental destruction from lithium mines in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, alongside Cobalt mines, and the huge abuses of human labour that go into these (a child as young as 7 working in a Congolese Cobalt mine would have to work 700,000 years 24/7  to earn the amount Jeff Bezos earns in a single day), to underpaid (and sometimes unpaid, as in the case of Google's ReCAPTCHA) workers labelling data training sets, to heavily controlled and dangerous hardware manufacturing factories in China, to the millions of cargo containers and ships transporting these parts across the globe, to the carbon emissions from running machine learning networks that learn and enact on data fed from our commands to 'switch on the light Alexa', Amazon's Echo extends far beyond the object we see in our living room.  The Olga was then my metaphor for this hidden structure, and the image (taken from Crawford and Joler's map) of a mechanical Turk (both an 18th C. Hungarian contraption/illusion that appeared to be an 'automaton' that could play chess against its user, where in fact hidden inside was a human labourer moving the pieces, and also the shameless title of Amazon's crowdsourcing software) seemed the perfect image to accompany this opening scene.   Eventually the triangles evolve to form volcano-like structures on the corners of the Olga.

"According to the Aymara legends about the creation of Bolivia, the volcanic mountains of the Andean plateau were creations of tragedy.  Long ago, when the volcanos were alive and roaming the plains freely, Tunupa - the only female volcano – gave birth to a baby. Stricken by jealousy, the male volcanos stole her baby and banished it to a distant location. The gods punished the volcanos by pinning them all to the Earth. Grieving for the child that she could no longer reach, Tunupa wept deeply. Her tears and breast milk combined to create a giant salt lake: Salar de Uyuni. As Liam Young and Kate Davies observe, “your smart-phone runs on the tears and breast milk of a volcano. This landscape is connected to everywhere on the planet via the phones in our pockets; linked to each of us by invisible threads of commerce, science, politics and power.” (Crawford & Joler)

The next section involved a tracing out of the perimeters of the triangles, expanding out like strands of data networks between nodes.  Images of Alexa, Lithium and a diagram of a human brain quantified into sections of intelligence, then filled the triangles.  Following this, a repeated structure of warping triangles grew and shrank into the abyss.  They had a cage-like quality, which echos the treatment of Amazon's employees (Bezos has even designed a cage with a seat and automatic arms from which warehouse staff can sit and navigate the warehouses).  They also resemble the tiered structure of lithium mines (images of which are also shown during this stage in the piece).