This year’s Telstra Creativity and Innovation Series Keynote for Melbourne Design Week, School of Cybernetics Senior Fellow Ellen Broad, reflects on redesigning the keynote format for life during a pandemic. In collaboration with artist and researcher (and School of Cybernetics alumnus) Eryk Salvaggio, Ellen writes, directs and presents an audio-driven immersive experience exploring future approaches to AI designed from an Australian centre for a live audience in Melbourne on 30 March 2021.
Image credit: A Science of Steering, Eryk Salvaggio 2021
What was the journey to this event?
I was originally supposed to do this keynote in mid March 2020. I remember going back and forth via email with Myf (Assistant Curator, Contemporary Design and Architecture, National Gallery of Victoria) in the week before that event as we tried to guess when and whether Australian cities would go into lockdown, with stories unfolding about a seriously contagious virus spreading around the world. When the Australian prime minister announced that - before attending a rugby game that night - we’d be going into hard lockdown from the following Monday, it was clear everything would be put on hold.
Then, Myf came back to me in December 2020 about revisiting the keynote for 2021 Design Week. I hesitated at first. 2020 had been such an absolutely mind bending year, in which I’d found myself - as we all have - having to rethink some of the fundamental expectations on which I’d built my life. How and when I’d get to see family and friends, how I’d do my job, visit a doctor (or an emergency dentist when your 12mo falls off a bed!) were suddenly uncertain. Things that seemed fixed and unchanging about the role digital technologies played in my life - the role I wanted them to play - and what I thought the most important issues confronting us designing AI, were all uprooted.
Back in summer 2020, my head had been full of bushfires and smoke and data-driven collaboration. I was planning to talk about the importance of connectivity and openness to designing AI, and things like consistent standards and rules underpinning our approaches. I remember I had this picture in my keynote of our baby in our kitchen with the walls glowing yellow from the dense bushfire smoke outside.
Then of course everything stopped. We lurched from bushfires into a pandemic. There was “pre COVID”, and COVID. And I knew that, for 2021, I’d have to rewrite the keynote entirely.
I was also pregnant again. By the time Melbourne Design Week 2021 rolled around, I’d be 39-40 weeks pregnant so travelling anywhere in person was out of the question.
Luckily, Myf and the National Gallery of Victoria, and Telstra, the sponsor of the keynote, were thinking about how to put on an event while taking into account the uncertainties of life during a global pandemic. Of all the major Australian cities, Melbourne experienced the most prolonged lockdowns in 2020. Internal border closures in response to various outbreaks made planning anything difficult. And even while we were tentatively discussing plans over December 2020, another outbreak in Sydney and Melbourne revived travel and movement restrictions again.
Amidst all this uncertainty though were new possibilities. We could experiment with different ways of approaching a keynote, beyond just having a live body in a room of live bodies telling a story. Don’t get me wrong, I miss those experiences. But after a year in which we’d all been getting more comfortable with different ways of engaging, including through digital technologies, here was space to explore something new. Something that could live a bit longer than for 45 minutes. And, crucially, it meant I could still participate even while physically unable to be there. That’s something that’s excited me: this pandemic has opened us up to new ways of including people in public spaces.
I knew I wanted this experience to be narrative driven, and that I didn’t want to simply record a “talking head” style video keynote. People don’t want to congregate in a space - when it’s so rare these days to get to do that! - and then feel like they’re watching a corporate video together. So it had to be different. I also knew I couldn’t create something visually and sonically rich on my own. So I approached Eryk Salvaggio, an amazing artist and researcher, and one of our alumni at the Australian National University’s School of Cybernetics (and 3A Institute), to see if he’d be interested in collaborating. I’d gotten hooked on Eryk’s musical compositions, many generated using GANs under the moniker The Organizing Committee, while looking for inspiration for the event, and we’d had many great conversations about AI and design and cybernetics during his year with us at ANU.
I had just landed in Memphis, Tennessee after a very surprising year. When Ellen asked if I could tackle the challenge that was this keynote, it was on a tight timeframe and it happened to be completed almost exactly between my two COVID vaccination shots. It was such a strange emotional time. I’d been on one side of the Australian border last year and my fiancee was stuck on the other. So being between shots, after being between places, was such a liminal, Bardo kind of place. There was this sense of being in between darkness and light, and I loved this idea of something driven by fades between videos, creating new spaces for ideas to meet. I keep thinking of this old Kurt Vonnegut line lately: “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there’s work to do.” That seems to be the ethos of where we are, and what I saw in Ellen’s words that I tried to capture visually and sonically. A sense of being between things, full of possibilities.
Image credit: Orb Weaver, Eryk Salvaggio 2021
What was your process pulling this together?
I found myself returning to Genevieve Bell’s (the Director and founder of the ANU School of Cybernetics, where I work) 2017 Boyer Lecture and this quote:
“Do we want to be Australian in this new data-driven smart, fast and connected world, or just another colony of some transnational, commercial empire? Of course, it is not that simple, nor should it be. But it is the case that algorithms and the data-centric world they help build, are manifestations of cultural values and cultural logics which arise in very particular places and contexts. Whilst it is certainly the case that there is a robust debate in Australia currently about what our value set might be, I think it is safe to say we might want to embody our own values in the data-driven digital world around us.”
In 2017, I don’t remember “Australian values” jumping out at me as the biggest takeaway from Genevieve’s keynote. But as with lots of things Genevieve says and does, it ended up being an eerily prescient reflection that would come up a lot in 2020. Unable to travel, unable to engage our international networks and supply chains, questions like what it meant to develop “Australian” resilience, what our identity was, how we celebrated local communities and contexts, became really important.
In artificial intelligence, too, it feels like we are very much at this tipping point where we’re shifting our gaze from machines themselves and whether / how they can be designed responsibly and ethically, to uprooting and questioning some of the fundamental values on which they’re built in the first place. Stories like this excellent one by Karen Hao exploring Facebook’s content moderation efforts demonstrate just how difficult it is to seriously address issues of disinformation or radicalisation online if you’re unwilling to confront a core value on which your platform is built: maximising engagement. It’s like bailing water out of a boat with a teaspoon while ignoring the reason water is coming in in the first place: there’s a gaping hole in the middle of it.
And up till now, it feels like there’s been this reluctance to address the gaping holes. Or even recognise that there could be alternative approaches to designing boats to avoid these holes. And yet, COVID has thrown so much of what we assumed was normal - the “status quo” - up in the air, it’s opened up more radical ways of challenging AI design too. Incremental tweaks and fixes aren’t enough. It feels like this is a moment to consider deep structural reform.
So I knew I wanted to frame the keynote around wholly different philosophies and models for AI, situated right here, locally in Australia. I started off with a huge number of ideas and themes, courtesy of excellent conversations with colleagues at the School of Cybernetics and across ANU. At one point, the narrative included not only Ursula K Le Guin and eastern bettongs and orb weavers, but also decades of Country Womens’ Association campaigns for phone call reform in Australia; sex-changing barramundi; flannel flowers blooming after bushfires; quotes from Jill Ker Conway, Robin Boyd and Tyson Yunkaporta (who luckily you’ll get to hear from directly on the night of the event)...and then I had to cut and cut and cut. And rewrite and rewrite. It needed to be something more meditative. It needed to leave space for people to imagine their own future for AI, and for Eryk’s gorgeous score and visual collage to bring it to life.
I started to think, as a designer: what would we hope would come out of something like our COVID year, where the same set of pixelated windows were the dominant aesthetic experience of our lives? What would the logical progression out of that be? And I thought back to my very, very early career, where I was creating visuals for DJs at music festivals. It was all screens! But people were there, dancing in person. Why weren’t we doing that over Zoom? The design question for me was “how might we VJ a keynote talk?” Finally, we have a chance to really mix the in-person, on-stage with the screens, so the screens have some work to do! The result is something that isn’t a film, but isn’t a slide deck, but a kind of sideways path into what’s being said, like the chat rooms at an online event. It’s VJing, but obviously not for dance music. Rather, something emotional, even contemplative, set to the rhythm of ideas instead of basslines. Or, in the end, both.
I’d been putting together these collage videos for The Organizing Committee, pulling out educational and industrial films from the Internet Archive and reassembling them, trying to respond to them more critically through the music in the project. (Ellen likes the quieter pieces, but it is a proto-cyberpunk project at heart!). Collage video, more than just a backdrop for dance parties, is a great way of probing into the visual history of cybernetics, understanding the way we have imagined our futures in the past, and literally remixing them into something new. It was an appropriate medium for the excellent text — and the work of 3AI — in going back to rethink the foundations of what and how we compute.
If you’re going to VJ, you ought to have music. The Organizing Committee is all about wrestling with strange machine logics about music generation into some alien form of pop music. When Ellen asked me to create a score, I had just stumbled into a different workflow for creating music with machine learning tools. I was transcribing the results of what these systems had generated, then looping them through delays — feedback loops, where notes could bump into each other, shift their own tones, and let those pieces evolve more naturally. It’s kind of unwinding how GANs write music to start with — they first scan an archive of music, identifying and replicating human patterns. I liked the idea of taking those patterns and wrestling them back into something different, something organic and evolving. So when Ellen asked if I could put something together, I was delighted to test this approach. It felt like a good match for the talk, not just for the sounds it produced but in how it produced them.
Where can we see the finished products?
The audio-visual component is 15 minutes long and you can watch it here. You can also listen to a live panel with me, Tyson Yunkaporta (whose book Sandtalk is incredible and is being passed around the School of Cybernetics, and who is currently facilitating the Indigenous Protocols and AI Incubator with Angie Abdilla and Megan Kelleher), and Fiona Milne (who is changing the shape of AI in Victoria and beyond as one of a handful of senior women leading applied AI teams) responding to the video. Tyson and Fiona will reflect on their own visions for the future of AI, were we to influence the rest of the world from right here in Australia.
We’re excited to see where the conversation goes.