While many artificial intelligence critics busy themselves getting terrified over the possibility of a Matrix-type scenario wherein AIs overthrow humanity for Earthly supremacy, others are exploring a more nuanced point of view. Consider London-based artist Lawrence Lek a member of the latter camp. In Geomancer, a 45-minute film designed with the ever-unbelievable Unreal Engine, Lek imagines AI as not only potentially benevolent, but artistic, and in many other ways, even human-like. Geomancer follows a young military AI satellite that becomes self-aware, then decides to descend to Earth and become an artist. Geomancer, the satellite, touches down at the Singapore 2065 Centennial, a future where the country has survived climate change floods. But the AI isn’t as unique as it thinks it is, since a mysterious group called the Sino-Futurists may have already beaten it to the punch.
After coming back down to Earth, Geomancer drifts through Singapore. There, it learns of art, human culture, and the Sinofuturists as it moves through a museum, interrogating an invisible AI curator and pondering life and art. It is also at the Centennial that Geomancer encounters Sim Singapore, a simulation of the city-state before the flood, which makes the viewer question whether Geomancer’s sense of reality is real or virtual.
Lek says there are several strands to Geomancer. One is the way science fiction dramatizes the militarization of technology and the fears behind it. There is also the slightly different culture and geopolitical ideas behind what he calls Sinofuturism, the idea that Chinese technological development is actually a form of artificial intelligence, and the anxiety that this produces in other parts of the world. Yet another is the literary portrait he constructs in Geomancer through the heavy use of words—in this case, Geomancer’s narration of self-discovery.
Over the last several years, Lek has used video game software as a narrative framework for his ideas, as well as to investigate the medium. Lek tells Creators that he is particularly interested in video games’ first-person narration, and what the implications of a first person perspective mean in terms of narrative. This is why Geomancer looks like the cut-scenes from video games.
“There’s a slight shift from the distance of the viewer to the embodiment of the viewer who is also the narrator, the reader, the viewer or the game player, where the world is rendered through their point of view,” Lek says. “I’d created fictional artists before for other work set in the future, who are thinking about what what I’m thinking about today. So, I thought as a way to take this further, what if I use this non-human but intelligent narrator in a sort of bildungsroman or coming-of-age narrative?”
The AI’s sense of self comes about in quite the opposite way from how it happens with humans. A newborn’s sense organs help to eventually build memories, then the baby increasingly perceives things in relation to its past experiences. Ultimately, an identity is formed. With the being in Geomancer, its memory—of all things that could possibly be learned—is established immediately, followed by its perception.
“For an AI that has downloaded its memory from the Internet, it has total recall before reception,” says Lek. “Is it all memory of itself or is it real-time perception? This has to do with simulation theory, which is woven into the fabric of the film itself.”
“I don’t think any consciousness, no matter how sophisticated, would be immune to some craving or yearning for something beyond its intelligence,” he adds. “If a being had so much intelligence, memory, and the capacity to win at basically at any kind of game, I imagined what it would want is to throw it all of way—to just have luck as opposed to determinism.”
Lek set Geomancer in Singapore because he’s quite familiar with the city-state, but he also felt it was a good place to set a story about Sinofuturism. He was interested in utopia-as-an-island as well as Singapore as an island nation, which mirrors London’s geographic situation, and these two countries’ relationship between independence and isolationism.
“This rising nationalism that the film has undertones of and the search for independence in a post-colonial or a post-human world is really important, but taken too far it’s basically another form of repressive fascism or superiority complex,” says Lek. “So, I think a lot of the human fear is around the mirror image fear of our own inferiority complex compared to other nations, other lifeforms, other people, other races, and so on and so forth.”
“My way of reflecting on all of these intense geopolitical situation is to think of the future, not so much from the human perspective but consciousness derived from human conflict, which is a very strange thing, I think.”
Geomancer is currently installed at Jerwood Space in London until May 14th, 2017. It was commissioned for Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017: Neither One Thing or Another, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella.
Click here to see more of Lawrence Lek’s work.