The mechanisms of empathy

“Every culture we know of dances around a fire. Our heartbeats sync up, we all follow this one rhythm, and we feel the tribe unite. If I explain my break-up in words, you will be able to understand to a degree what I’m going through. But if I write a piece of music and play it to you, you might just start crying, and that’s totally incredible because I’m not giving you any framework. I’m not necessarily reminding you of something from your past. It’s purely those patterns that are bringing you to tears.”

A conversation with Keaton Henson for New Scientist, 16 July 2018

How Charles Dickens became a man of science

It is not accuracy we expect of Dickens; it is vision. It may be interesting that Our Mutual Friend uses the word “energy” in its new scientific sense. But what really thrills the heart is to follow Krook’s visitors up the stairs as they are about to find his body:

“‘See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off – smears like black fat!’… A thick, yellow liquor defiles them… A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder…”

Visiting Charles Dickens: Man of Science, at the Charles Dickens Museum, London for New Scientist, 16 June 2018

The ambition of transhumanism

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a travelogue of strange journeys and bizarre encounters among transhumanists, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. Wearing my New Scientist hat I asked O’Connell how he managed to give transhumanism a human face – despite his own scepticism.

Has transhumanism ever made personal sense to you?

Transhumanism’s critique of the human condition, its anxiety around having to die — that’s something I have some sympathy with, for sure, and that’s where the book began. The idea was for the door to some kind of conversion to be always open. But I was never really convinced that the big ideas in transhumanism, things like mind-uploading and so on, were really plausible. The most interesting question for me was, “Why would anyone want this?”

A lot of transhumanist thought is devoted to evading death. Do the transhumanists you met get much out of life?

I wouldn’t want to be outright prescriptive about what it means to live a meaningful life. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. I think if you’re so devoted to the idea that we can outrun death, and that death makes life utterly meaningless, then you are avoiding the true animal nature of what it means to be human. But I find myself moving back and forth between that position and one that says, you know what, these people are driven by a deep, Promethean project. I don’t have the deep desire to shake the world to its core that these people have. In that sense, they’re living life to its absolute fullest.

What most sticks in your mind from your researches for the book?

The place that sticks in my mind most clearly is Alcor’s cryogenic life extension facility. In terms of just the visuals, it’s bizarre. You’re walking around what’s known as a “patient care bay”, among these gigantic stainless steel cylinders filled with corpses and severed heads that they’re going to unfreeze once a cure for death is found. The thing that really grabbed me was the juxtaposition between the sci-fi level of the thing and the fact that it was situated in a business park on the outskirts of Phoenix, next door to Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies and a tile showroom.

They do say the future arrives unevenly…

I think we’re at a very particular cultural point in terms of our relationship to “the future”. We aren’t really thinking of science as this boundless field of possibility any more, and so it seems bit of a throwback, like something from an Arthur C. Clarke story. It’s like the thing with Elon Musk. Even the global problems he identifies — rogue AI, and finding a new planet that we can live on to perpetuate the species — seem so completely removed from actual problems that people are facing right now that they’re absurd. A handful of people who seem to wield almost infinite technological resources are devoting themselves to completely speculative non-problems. They’re not serious, on some basic level.

Are you saying transhumanism is a product of an unreal Silicon Valley mentality?

The big cultural influence over transhumanism, the thing that took it to the next level, seems to have been the development of the internet in the late 1990s. That’s when it really became a distinct social movement, as opposed to a group of more-or-less isolated eccentric thinkers and obsessives.

But it’s very much a global movement. I met a lot of Europeans – Russia in particular has a long prehistory of attempts to evade death. But most transhumanists have tended to end up in the US and specifically in Silicon Valley. I suppose that’s because these kinds of ideas get most traction there. You don’t get people laughing at you when you mention want to live forever.

The one person I really found myself grappling with, in the most profound and unsettling way, was Randal Koene. It’s his idea of uploading the human mind to a computer that I find most deeply troubling and offensive, and kind of absurd. As a person and as a communicator, though, Koene was very powerful. A lot of people who are pushing forward these ideas — people like Ray Kurzweil — tend to be impresarios. Randal was the opposite. He was very quietly spoken, very humble, very much the scientist. There were moments he really pushed me out of my scepticism – and I liked him.

Is transhumanism science or religion?

It’s not a religion: there’s no God, for instance. But at the same time I think it very obviously replaces religion in terms of certain basic yearnings and anxieties. The anxiety about death is the obvious one.

There is a very serious religious subtext to all of transhumanism’s aspirations. And at the same time, transhumanists absolutely reject that thinking, because it tends to undermine their perception of themselves as hardline rationalists and deeply science-y people. Mysticism is quite toxic to their sense of themselves.

Will their future ever arrive?

On one level, it’s already happening. We’re walking round in this miasma of information and data, almost in a state of merger with technology. That’s what we’re grappling with as a culture. But if that future means an actual merger of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, I think that’s a deeply terrifying idea, and not, touch wood, something that is ever going to happen.

Should we be worried?

That is why I’m now writing about a book about apocalyptic anxieties. It’s a way to try to get to grips with our current political and cultural moment.

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death
Mark O’Connell
Granta/Doubleday

Cosmoscope

We’ve learned much in the half-millennium since Leonardo declared Man “the measure of all things.”, and seen the human species relegated to a footnote in the cosmological story.
Now we’re beginning to see that humanity maybe does sit at the heart of the universe. At no other scale but ours does the universe attain such complexity.

Exhibited at the London Lumiere festival in January 2018, Simeon Nelson’s 3.3 metre-high singing, flashing sculpture, is an enormous puzzle in structural engineering, sound and software design. It’s also a homage to cosmological models of the past, especially Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man”, drawn around 1490.

I interviewed the makers for this video by David Stock.

A glimpse at time

Visiting MU Artspace, Eindhoven for New Scientist, 20 January 2018

Making art out of biological material, living tissue or even recordings of whole ecosystems is no longer a new idea. In fact it is one that is fast approaching its majority: SymbioticA, the pioneering art and science research laboratory that did so much to establish the field, was opened in 2001.

Life Time, a small show running at MU Artspace in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, shows this quintessentially 21st-century art at its best. Few pieces here would ever find their way into a regular gallery. A striking exception is An Incomplete Life, a performance installation by Dutch physical theatre company Wild Vlees (styling itself as Proud Flesh in English), in which a recumbent actor is slowly engulfed by a pile of salt spilling from the inverted cone of a giant hourglass.

More often, the artists take the scatter-gun conceit-making of traditional conceptual art and push it towards real experiment and analysis. The pieces that result are more interesting than beautiful, but with good curation this need not be a problem. It would be a dull gallery-goer who didn’t appreciate the exhibits, including those by finalists of the 2017 Bio Art and Design Award.

The BADs, developed with leading Dutch researchers in the life sciences, have been pushing the boundaries of bio art since 2011. Three winners from last year take centre stage.

South Korean artist Jiwon Woo collaborated with Han Wösten of Utrecht University to study whether there is a bacterial or fungal basis to the Korean notion of son-mat or “hand taste” – the subtleties of flavour imparted to food by the person who prepares it. Some local hooch-making kit was on display – in case you didn’t get the point.

Then there’s an immersive eight-channel audio installation called Seasynthesis: a thudding and horrific distillation of the sound pollution besetting the North Sea. This is the work of Dutch artist Xandra van der Eijk, working with Han Lindeboom at Wageningen University.

Meanwhile, Chinese artist Guo Cheng has worked with Heather Leslie at Free University Amsterdam on a Canutic effort to remove all traces of human activity from a cubic metre of soil taken from a dockyard in the city, sorting, washing and rinsing, and removing rubble, plastics and other chemicals. The Anthropocene has never seemed so immediate, or so insidious, as in this video installation.

So much for the art. What of the curation? MU Artspace’s show juxtaposes the BAD shortlist with works by more established artists to make a statement about the nature of time.

Time is difficult to talk about – the show’s cumbersome title is proof enough of that, and even the gallery’s lucid handout by William Myers, a curator based in Amsterdam, labours under the title “A Non-Circadian Cadence”. But the show itself does much better, embracing a wide swathe of temporal landscape, “from the universal to the personal and from the cellular to the geological”. Time, we are told, is “simultaneously binding us, through heredity, and separating us, by death”.

“Ex Nihilo affords us an ice-cold glimpse of a bureaucratic, post-natural future”
It is significant, I think, that of the works by established artists featured here, the strongest are two video pieces.

Noah Hutton’s film Deep Time documents the destruction of the oil-rich North Dakotan landscape by 1970s-style big engineering. And Ex Nihilo by Finnish artist Timo Wright juxtaposes footage from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frozen brain being prepared by a cryonics company, and a workshop working on an advanced humanoid robot to afford us an ice-cold glimpse of a bureaucratic, post-natural future.

Visiting Life Time is rather like watching one of those allusive, polymathic documentaries by British documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. While the show exhibits some of the method’s shortcomings, it manages the old Curtis trick of delivering much more than the sum of its parts.

Music and art stop dementia from stealing everything we cherish

A choir and a De Kooning show inspired this piece for New Scientist, 4 January 2018

This year, stalked by insomnia, I have been going to bed with Melvyn Bragg. More precisely, I have been putting myself to sleep with podcasts of Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, the best cultural contexter money can’t buy. On its website there are quizzes to check how much you remember, though I rarely score more than 4 out of 12.

Podcasts, the St John’s College reading list, Wagner’s Ring cycle: I’ve been pouring culture down my throat the way the Danaids filled their bath, and to about the same effect.

According to Greek legend, 49 of King Danaus’s 50 daughters were mariticidal, and condemned to fill a leaky bath in hell, and their lot is an apt metaphor for the human condition. However much we fill our lives, our lives still dribble away. We experience, we learn – but we also forget. Finally, we die.

No wonder death is terrifying. It’s not just me that will perish on my deathbed. With me, a whole world will gutter out.

One day in October, circumstances conspired to bring me a little comfort. The Wellcome Trust invited me along to a rehearsal of Singing with Friends, a community choir for families living with dementia, led by the Wigmore Hall in partnership with Westminster Arts.

Wellcome’s interdisciplinary research group Created Out of Mind are trying to understand (and, where possible, quantify) the therapeutic properties of the arts in dementia care and the care of older people generally.

Paul Camic, a psychologist at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent, UK, was there to talk me through the research.

Musically inclined readers may already be familiar with the idea that we recall best and most reliably the music we first heard between the ages of 15 and 21.

This choir’s weekly rehearsals (four-part harmonies from a standing start, public performances announced, and a great deal of mutual mickey-taking) reveal something that for my money is much more exciting.

Apparently, musically inclined people are more than capable of continuing their musical education, and achieving command of new material, in even quite advanced stages of dementia.

Is there a general truth to be drawn here? That same morning saw me visiting Skarstedt Gallery in central London, and an exhibition of late canvases by Willem de Kooning.

The American abstract-expressionist’s celebrated and long career ended in an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and wags in search of a cheap laugh have long suggested that his last, ever-more minimal canvases reflected his mental deterioration.

Face to face with this work, however, it’s clear that de Kooning was developing and exploiting new vocabularies of form, depth and colour right up to his retirement at the age of 86.

Such stories take nothing away from the misery of dementia. I recall vividly, at the Wigmore Hall, the wife of a former jazz musician explaining how her husband, after hours of skilful extemporising around a new theme, would fail to remember how or where to go to the toilet.

Then again, she also told me that attending Singing with Friends was like “coming out”; that for her husband and for the choir as a whole, excellence was still achievable; and that its attainment was all too rarely recognised by a squeamish wider world.

Which is why I’m here typing that most unfashionable thing: a story with a moral. The bath is leaking. But then, the bath was always leaking. Deal with it. Keep going with the buckets. “Pour, pour, against the draining of the bath,” as Dylan Thomas didn’t say.

Just experience it

Visiting mumok, Vienna’s museum of contemporary art, for New Scientist, 23 December 2017

Visitors to Vienna’s spectacular Natural History Museum may discover some taxidermied exhibits smothered in black gloop. This is artist Mark Dion’s The Tar Museum, and it is part of Natural Histories: Traces of the Political, an art exhibition about nature and politics, most of which is in the nearby museum of contemporary art, mumok.

Those venturing across the Maria-Theresien-Platz will not be sorry. Or not at first. Early on, there is charming, sometimes beautiful documentation of work in the 1970s by the Romanian Sigma group. Inspired by research in bionics and cybernetics, mathematician Lucian Codreanu and his fellows applied scientific method to their observations of the rivers and woods of the Timisoara hunting forest. Doru Tulcan’s abstract sculpture Structuring the Cube makes something surprisingly organic, suggestive of the workings of a crayfish’s eye, from a tiny vocabulary of rods and triangles. Meanwhile, Stefan Bertalan’s Structure of the Elderflower earns its place by virtue of its exquisite draughtsmanship. This being the 1970s, the Sigma group also enjoyed a lot of more-or-less undressed mucking about, and became a focus of dissent against Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship.

The other artists, groups and movements in this show rarely achieved as direct an engagement with the natural world.

Many pieces here index human activity through changes in the environment. The models and photographs of Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s Debrisphere record how landscapes have been altered for military purposes. More often, though, the art focuses on how nature encroaches on human settlement. In Arena, Anri Sala records the decayed state of Tirana zoo, with feral dogs occupying a space meant for people, while the zoo’s “wild” animals languish in cages.

Nature’s eradication of human traces can’t come quickly enough in some cases. In 2003, Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka visited Auschwitz and filmed deer grazing by the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp. A wall board observes that, in 1942 (when Bambi was released), “while cinemagoers were shedding tears about the emotional story of a little deer, the ‘final solution’ and the murder of millions of people was already being planned”. This is silly: would the world be any better if Bambi’s bereavement left us unmoved?

It gets worse. Exquisite allegorical frescoes by 18th-century artist Johann Wenzel Bergl are “recognizable as strategies of absolutist picture propaganda”. And back with Dion: one installation capturing “the lifestyle and self-image of the prototypical ethnographer of colonial times”, isn’t even that, according to the curators, but alludes “to our own imagination of that ethnographer”.

I left feeling rather as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have felt if, instead of freely stepping through the mirror, she had been shoved through it from behind by a gang of goonish anthropologists.

Natural Histories is a portal into a world where history, politics, horror, guilt and the natural world are sewn together. It is well worth seeing, but I wish the curators had shut up.

Technology vs observation

Losing my rag at the Royal Academy for New Scientist, 13 December 2017

When the schools of London’s Royal Academy of Arts were opened in 1769, life drawing — the business of sketching either live models or the plaster casts of worthy sculptures — was an essential component of an artist’s training.

As I wandered around From Life, an exhibition devoted to the history as well as the future of the practice, I overheard a curator explaining that, now life drawing is no longer obligatory in Royal Academy art courses, a new generation of artists are approaching the practice in a “more expressive” way. The show’s press release claims even more: that life drawing is evolving “as technology opens up new ways of creating and visualising artwork”.

There was little of this in evidence when I visited, however: two-and-a-half of the three virtual-reality experiences on offer had broken down. Things break down when the press turns up – you might even say it’s a rule. Still, given their ubiquity, I’m beginning to wonder whether gallery-based VR malfunctions are not a kind of mischievous artwork in their own right. In place of a virtual sketch, a message in an over-friendly font asks: “Have you checked your internet connection?” At least Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s wild mobiles of the 1960s had the decency to catch fire.

How can new technologies like Google’s Tilt Brush and HTC’s Vive VR platform bring artists into a more intimate relation to their subject — more intimate than might be achieved by, say, standing a metre away from a naked stranger armed only with a bit of charcoal?

Jonathan Yeo has had a stab at the problem, using Tilt Brush’s 3D painting tech to fashion a sculptural self-portrait. The outsize bronze 3D print of his effort — an assemblage of short, wide, hesitant virtual “brushstrokes” — has a curiously dated feel and wouldn’t look out of place in a group retrospective of 20th-century British sculpture. As an advert for a technology that prides itself on its expressivity (videos of the platform at work usually resemble explosions in a paint factory), it’s a curiously laborious piece.

On a nearby wall hang Gillian Wearing’s photographic self-portraits, manipulated using the sort of age-progression technology employed by forensic artists. In this way, Wearing has captured her appearance 10, 20, 30 years into her future. It’s an undeniably moving display, and undeniably off the point: life drawing is about capturing the present moment, which leaves Wearing’s contribution resembling those terms and conditions that appear at the bottom of TV advertisements – Other Moments Are Available.

Yinka Shonibare (best known for his ship-in-a-bottle sculpture on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square) comments on the show, rather than contributes to it, with a 3D VR conceptualisation of a painting by the 18th-century Scots artist and dealer Gavin Hamilton.

Hamilton once sold a Roman sculpture to a collector. Shonibare has scanned a plaster cast of this Townley Venus, then placed it on a plinth in a largely imaginary VR garden (you catch only a glimpse of this space in Hamilton’s painting). He has covered its plaster-white surface with batik designs (referring to common sub-Saharan African fabric, though it was originally a Dutch export) and as a coup de grâce, he has stuck a globe on Venus’s torso in place of her head. The point is that we can never copy something without to some degree appropriating it. Whether you like what he’s done will depend on whether you like art that makes a primarily intellectual point.

In a gallery environment increasingly besotted by (and bested by) technology, such acts of cultural orienteering may be necessary; they’re certainly inevitable. The new work gracing From Life at least attempts to address the theme of the show, and its several failures are honest and interesting.

Still, I keep coming back to the historical half of the exhibition — to the casts, the drawings, the portraits of struggling young artists from 1769 to now. Life drawing is not obligatory for artists? It should be obligatory for everyone. If we never learn to observe honestly, what the devil will we ever have to be expressive about?

It’s coming at you!

OUTSIDE Dimension Studios in Wimbledon, south London, is one of those tiny wood-framed snack bars that served commercial travellers in the days before motorways. The hut is guarded by old shop dummies dressed in fishnet tights and pirate hats. If the UK made its own dilapidated version of Westworld, the cyborg rebellion would surely begin here.

Steve Jelley orders us breakfast. Years ago he left film production to pursue a career developing new media. He’s of the generation for whom the next big thing is always just around the corner. Most of them perished in the dot-com bust of 2001, but Jelley clung to the dream, and now Microsoft has come calling.

His company, Hammerhead, makes 360-degree videos for commercial clients. Its partner in this current venture, Timeslice Films, is best known for volumetric capture of still images – the business of cinematographically recording forms in three dimensions – a practice that goes back to founder Tim MacMillan’s art-school experiments of the early 1980s.

Steve Sullivan, director of the Holographic Video initiative at Microsoft, is fusing both companies’ technical expertise to create volumetric video: immersive entertainment that’s indistinguishable from reality.

There are only three studios in the world that can do this with any degree of conviction, and Wimbledon is the only one outside the US. Still, I’m sceptical. It has been clear for a while that truly immersive media won’t spring from a single “light-bulb” moment. The technologies involved are, in conceptual terms, surprisingly old. Volumetric capture is a good example.

MacMillan is considered the godfather of this tech, having invented the “bullet time” effect central to The Matrix. But The Matrix is 18 years old, and besides, MacMillan reckons that pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge got to the idea years before him – in fact, decades before cinema was invented.

“Engineer Masahiro Mori says his ‘uncanny valley’ idea was never meant to be taken scientifically”

Then there’s motion capture (or mocap): recording the movement of points attached to an actor, and from those points, constructing the performance of a three-dimensional model. The pioneering Soviet physiologist Nikolai Bernstein invented the technique in the early 1920s, while developing training programmes for factory workers.

Truly immersive media will be achieved not through magic bullets, but through thugging – the application of ever more computer power, and the ever-faster processing of more and more data points. Impressive, but where’s the breakthrough?

“Well,” Jelley begins, handing me what may be the largest bacon sandwich in London, “you know this business of the ‘uncanny valley’…?” My heart sinks slightly.

Most New Scientist readers will be familiar with Masahiro Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley. It’s a curiously anglophone obsession. In the 30 years since the Japanese engineer published his paper in 1970, it has been referred to in Japanese academic literature only once. Mori himself says the idea was never meant to be taken scientifically. He was merely warning robot designers at a time when humanoid robots didn’t exist that the closer their works came to resemble people, the creepier we would find them.

In the West, discussions of the uncanny valley have grown to a sizeable cottage industry. There have been expensive studies done with PET scans to prove the existence of the effect. But as Mori commented in an interview in 2012: “I think that the brainwaves act that way because we feel eerie. It still doesn’t explain why we feel eerie to begin with.”

Our discomfort extends beyond encounters with physical robots to include some cinematic experiences. Many are the animated movies that have employed mocap to achieve something like cinematic realism, only to plummet without trace into the valley.

Elsewhere, actor Andy Serkis famously uses mocap to transform himself into characters like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, or the chimpanzee Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we are carried along well enough by these films. The one creature this technology can’t emulate, however, is Serkis himself. Though mocap now renders human body movement with impressive realism, the human face remains a machine far too complex to be seamlessly emulated even by the best system.

Jelley reckons he and his partners have “solved the problem” of the uncanny valley. He leads me into the studio. There’s a small, circular, curtained-off area – a sort of human-scale birdcage. Rings of lights and cameras are mounted on scaffolds and hang from a moveable and very heavy-looking ceiling rig.

There are 106 cameras: half of them recording in the infrared spectrum to capture depth information, half of them recording visible light. Plus, a number of ultraviolet cameras. “We use ultraviolet paint to mask areas for effects work,” Jelley explains, “so we record the UV spectrum, too. Basically we use every glimmer of light we can get short of asking you to swallow radium.”

The cameras shoot between 30 and 60 times a second. “We have a directional map of the configuration of those cameras, and we overlay that with a depth map that we’ve captured from the IR cameras. Then we can do all the pixel interpolation.”

This is a big step up from mocap. Volumetric video captures real-time depth information from surfaces themselves: there are no fluorescent sticky dots or sliced-through ping-pong balls attached to actors here. As far as the audience is concerned, volumetric video is essentially just that, video, and as close to a true record as anything piped through a basement full of computers is ever going to get.

So what kind of films are made in such studios? Right now, the education company Pearson is creating virtual consultations for trainee nurses. Fashion brands and car companies have shot adverts here. TV companies want to use them for fully immersive and interactive dramas.

“I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me has fallen for this super-real gymnast”

On a table nearby, a demo is ready to watch on a Vive VR headset. There are three sets of performances for me to observe, all looping in a grey, gridded, unadorned virtual space: the digital future as a filing cabinet. There are two experiments from Sullivan’s early days at Microsoft. Thomas Jefferson is pure animatronic; the two Maori haka dancers are engaging, if unhuman. The circus gymnast swinging on her hoop is different. I recognise her, or think I do. My body-language must be giving the game away, because Jelley laughs.

“Go up to her,” he says. I can’t place where I’ve seen her before. I try and catch her eye. “Closer.”

I’m invading her space, and I’m not comfortable with this. I can see the individual threads, securing the sequins to her costume. More than that: I can smell her. I can feel the heat coming from her skin.

I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me that might have rejected a digitised face as uncanny has fallen hook, line and sinker for this super-real gymnast. And this, presumably, is why the bit of my mind that enables me to communicate freely and easily with my fellow humans is in overdrive, trying to plug the gaps in my experience, as if to say, “Of course her skin is hot. Of course she has a scent.”

Mori’s uncanny valley effect is not quantifiable, and I don’t suppose my experience is any more measurable than the one Mori identified. But I’d bet the farm that, had you scanned me, you would have seen all manner of pretty lights. This hasn’t been an eerie experience. Quite the reverse. It’s terrifyingly ordinary. Almost, I might say, human.

Jelley walks me back to the main road. Neither of us says a word. He knows what he has. He knows what he has done.

Outside the snack shack, three shop dummies in pirate gear wobble in the wind.