We are witnessing the greatest upheavals of modern times: Artificial Intelligence and Global Change are altering fundamentally what we took for granted.
My project Quantified Reality is the attempt to photographically document these epoch-defining developments. I take the role of a rapporteur from outer space: looking at our earth like an alien bio- and ethnographer.
From a distance, the dramatic transformations observable to the Earth System – Climate Change, the extinction of species, but also the creation of Artificial Intelligence, machine cognition, and Autonomous robots – have the same root or cause: the actions of one species, colonizing all continents and dominating the whole planet: Mankind.
Today, our world becomes understandable to the logic of machines. The tangible is turned into bits and bytes. Now, the world becomes countable – a Quantified Reality.
The topic is urgent – digitization is the oil of the 21st century.
Every day, machine cognition improves. How will Artificial Intelligence be used? What will its societal consequences be like, now that technology penetrates everyday life comprehensively? Today, digitally created and stored data exceeds in volume all information and knowledge recorded by humanity through the millennia hitherto.
Every day species go extinct, while – even in Europe – unknown new species are still discovered regularly. While protection of the earth system against pollution, habitat loss, and Climate Change is only slowly advancing, tech-visionaries sketch geo- and bio-engineered solutions. Will drones and robots succeed wildlife?
After all, bird and insect populations are dying at an alarming rate: since the 1980s, half of all starlings and sparrows disappeared and the amount of insect biomass fell by 80 percent.
The topic may seem abstract. But as a medium of translation of complex information into visual messages, photography has the potential to articulate societal, political, and economic trends into visually engaging and comprehensive images.
As a photographer, I have always strived to find the world that lies below the surfaces of the ordinary, the shadow-world that a dedicated artist can reveal, given sufficient time. Examining what will be lost and what can remain is my story. I intend to reach past the comfort zone, asking questions about struggle, suffering, and about foreseeable loss. It’s a universal story, really. For if we don’t quest for the future, what do we really quest for?
To tackle the complexity of the topic, I propose a photographic encyclopaedia: a series single images and self-contained, mono-thematical chapters on narrow, well-defined sub-aspects.
The Quantified Reality is invisible. It is based on cables lying deep on the ground of the oceans, server farms set up in non-descript office buildings, and algorithms working in ordinary computer terminals. There’s little that gives away the societal power, political dependencies, and economical importance of the technologies implied.
The Quantified Reality raises a fundamental question: How can we debate what we can't see, what is so abstract?
The Quantified Reality is greedy; stock traders spend multi-millions on building direct microwave links between the large stock exchanges like Frankfurt and London or New York and Chicago. These private connections allow stock traders to ‘act in the future’ as information is received a fraction of a second earlier than through conventional fibre-based internet connections.
The Quantified Reality is perfect surveillance. It allows an Orwellian dystopia as executed by the NSA's and GCHQ's eavesdropping programmes and the prediction of yet-to-commit crimes by PREDPOL or CAS algorithms.
Individual, collective, and non-profit initiatives are today more important than ever to challenge surveillance by corporations and governments.
The Quantified Reality triggered a world wide gold fever. 'Artificial Intelligence' is a buzz word. Every day, new start-ups are founded by hungry entrepreneurs, promising new AI applications. However, no machine is smart by itself; in fact it's a tedious job to train them. It's a tedious job to train algorithms.
Bangalore, India, has long been famous as the world's IT service provider. It's a multi-billion sector, providing 40 percent of India's GDP. The situation is rather bleak for those that actually do the work: Platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk proliferate digital sweatshops where workers, called 'artificial artificial intelligence' in industry jargon, earn seldomly more than a dime per task establishing 'ground truth' for the training of AI systems. Nonetheless, Silicon Valley, the self-driving car efforts of German luxury brands, and virtually any other cutting-edge technology company happily books the services in India.
The Quantified Reality is built upon an ever-increasing number of data centres, computers, and various electronic devices. As the raw materials needed to produce them are scarce and expensive, resourcing relies on a vicious system of armed conflict, forced labour, and systematic rape. Is recycling and urban mining a solution to end the proliferation of conflict minerals?
The Quantified Reality is struggling to gather information about the accelerating climate change and the suffering biosphere. Even as climate change needs to be slowed urgently and the mass extinction of species needs to be stopped, data about the well-being of birds and insects are gathered by hobbyists and volunteers.
The Quantified Reality is hazardous. As the abundance of species diminishes, as habitat perishes, the risk of novel diseases is on the rise. Researchers of the Junglen working group “Ecology of novel arbo viruses” at the Institute of Virology, Charité, Berlin collected several 100 000 specimen of mosquitoes from primeval tropical forests and neighbouring farmland to map changes in species dsitribution of both mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Their hunch is: generalist species feeding on several host animal species are more likely to dominate in disturbed eco-systems, increasing the chance of diseases jumping from animals to humans. Also, the viruses they carry tend to be generalists, adapted to a variety of host species, further adding to the risk of novel viruses.
The Quantified Reality makes ignorance unfeasible. For decades, India has been suffering a tuberculosis endemic. But as the only test available – detecting the bacteria with a microscope – is century-old and slow, official numbers remained low. Recently introduced, internationally funded fully automatized gene test machines turned the nationwide gut feeling into facts, making the crisis impossible to ignore.
It's not only wildlife that is under threat: also cultivars lose the richness and abundance of species. There were more than 20'000 known apple (Malus domestica Borkh.) varieties of which some 7'000 are still cultivated. But few, mostly engineered apples like the 'Red Delicious' dominate the market with a share of around 90%. Preserving the diversity is important to maintain resistency against diseases and climate change. It's the same situation everywhere: bannanas almost exlcusively are one sub-group of varieties (Musa × paradisiaca AAA 'Cavendish'), and even various kinds of swine and chicken are threatened of extinction.
Contra-intuitively, biodiversity is higher in cities than in the country side. Two thirds of all breeding birds that appear in Germany are observable in large cities; for many animals, they resemble a rocky landscape with plenty of shelter and food supply. The New York City falcon colonies are legendary. In the Netherlands, the grey heron was nearly extinct but survived in the cities and is now retaking the countryside.
Does the Quantified Reality create new habitat? We hardly know. Certainly, our spatial sensing doesn't do justice to flora, fauna, habitat: humans mostly rely on simple stereoscopic RGB-Vision to create a map of our surrounding. Many birds see additional colours, extending into UV. Some reptiles see in the infrared spectrum. Cats have whiskers to feel their way and bats use echo sounding.
Employing light detection and ranging (LiDAR), as commonly used in self driving cars and other autonomous robots, the Quantified Reality tries to create an accurate intelligence of urban habitat.
Every day species go extinct. At the same time, humans create a new species: that of artificially intelligent machines. Which animals did we never discover before man-made mass-extinction? Which animals could have evolved, would time have allowed?
Diverting processing power of Google’s high-performance computers, I designed an Artificial Intelligence to find an answer what could have been: my insGAN AI is creating plausible, possibly novel, insects.
Today, we live at the front-line between the analogue past and the digital future. It is my task to document the change: what is and what will be.
The Quantified Reality is inevitable.