An algorithm is put on trial in Helen Knowles' dystopian tale of fraud and intrigue that cuts closer to our reality in 2017 than we might like to admit
"How does Facebook know?" a friend asked me recently after an advertisement for counselling popped up on her feed. We shrug and laugh because we already know. Online surveillance and the collection of big data is a daily reality. We know that we just have to look up something online once, for an algorithm to bombard us with flashing advertisements for weeks afterwards. But we go about our lives and try not to think about it too much, because we also know that things that were once shocking, can just as soon become everyday if you let them.
As invasive technologies become more and more part of our lives, what will we learn to accept next? When algorithms develop further, and learn to make more decisions for themselves, who is to blame when something goes wrong? Addressing this near-future in a fascinating new film work, The Trial of Superdebthunterbot, British artist Helen Knowles explores the culpability of artificial intelligence, by putting an algorithm on trial for manslaughter.
In the film, which opened as an installation at the Zabludowicz last week, Knowles imagines a fictional scenario in which a debt collecting company buys the student loans books and develops an algorithm to target potential defaulters. The algorithm places job ads on websites that the individuals frequent and as a result, two people have died in unregulated medical trials. The concept seems absurd, yet watching the film it becomes uncannily familiar. Knowles worked with lawyers to come up with the idea and develop the script, and the film is shot in Southwark Crown Court, with real lawyers and a selected jury.
When algorithms develop further and learn to make more decisions for themselves, who is to blame when something goes wrong?
For the installation, viewers are penned in on blue pleather pews as they watch the film, and a new series of pastel court drawings line the room's far wall. In the film of the trial, the algorithm defendant is housed in a transparent computer, designed and built by the artist Daniel Dressel. The computer is wheeled in on a rusting trolley and sits in the dock at the front of the courtroom, blinking, buzzing, and yet sinisterly unaware. “I thought it was comical to try to house the algorithm in something, and that dramatically it would look interesting in the courtroom,” Knowles tells me when we catch up before the show. “It is a very beautiful object. The fact that it’s transparent gives this sense of etherealness, and yet we are trying to get to the infrastructure of something that is actually immaterial.”
The film was shot with high-definition cameras, GoPros and drones to further emphasise the technology and surveillance themes at work, and to play with the opposing digital and physical aspects of the case. As Knowles puts it, “I was thinking about the courtroom and its material reality versus this ethereal non-human entity, that we can’t really grasp”. The drones hover over the jury’s heads, their cameras depicting HD close-ups of fraying carpets and scuffed shoes. Here the once authoritative space of the courtroom appears to be deteriorating, while the algorithm, unseen within its slick casing, becomes more developed and sophisticated over time. “Algorithms are part of our daily lives”, the prosecuting lawyer states. “Do not underestimate them.”
“I was thinking about the courtroom and its material reality versus this ethereal non-human entity, that we can’t really grasp”
Knowles' interest in making work about algorithms sparked from initial research into financial markets and creating work that looked into the role of London as the financial centre. 'What I became really aware of was that technology was driving a lot of the decision making and algorithms were the kingpin of this decision making", she says.
The idea of prosecuting a non-human entity came to her after reading an article by Susan Schuppli about algorithms used for drone warfare that modify their behaviour. An algorithm, Schuppli writes, "has the capacity to self-educate, to learn and to modify its coding sequences independent of human oversight.” For Knowles, this is the most interesting part. In her speculative scenario, the algorithm has been developed to self-educate. It posts ads for unregulated medical trials, understanding that these ads bring the most earnings but without recognising the potential danger or the moral implications of pushing such ads. ”With AI, that is always the big question”, Knowles says. “If it is learning, what exactly are the parameters of it learning? How does it modify its behaviour?”
By creating an absurd fictional scenario in which an audience can think seriously about these real future debates Knowles forces us to look closer at our present. Facebook's algorithms already know more information about us than our closest friends. By spreading fake news these same algorithms significantly impacted the US election. “On the one hand it is a joke”, says Knowles. “But on the other hand, everything that I have read suggests that it is entirely possible. Really, it isn’t a joke at all.”
'The Trial of Superdebthunterbot' is showing at the Zabludowicz Collection until 26 February. A live event using research generated from Knowles’ recent presentations to law schools will take place on 26 February.
For more information on Helen Knowles, visit her website.