From Apple to Anomaly: Trevor Paglen at Barbican Centre

In From 'Apple' to 'Anomaly' on show at the Barbican's Curve Gallery, artist Trevor Paglen questions the way artificial intelligence networks are being trained to categorise objects and people.

As AI becomes a common part of our everyday lives – with current applications ranging from smart devices such as Alexa and Siri to facial recognition controversially being applied in surveillance – the central premise of the exhibiton is that the systems that are used to 'train' this technology should be the subject of greater scrutiny.

Through 30,000 pinned photos, Paglen explores the categories used by one of the world's largest datasets commonly used to train AI. The vast wall of images create a striking effect from a distance, and bring together clusters of photos around specific words. These words are from a crowdsourced word set used to train the ImageNet AI, created by US researchers a decade ago, and move from the neutral – apple surrounded by a huge variety of apple images; the word sun with an array of sunrises and sunsets – to the controversial with potential values attached. 'Entrepeneur' throws up a range of images of which the vast majority are male; a range of politicians appear next to 'traitor', 'heathen', 'moneygrubber'; and the contrast between 'alcoholic' and 'wine lover' appears mostly to rely on the drink pictured. 

The exhibition also shows the quality humans retain over any form of AI – creativity and ability to understand nuance. Words such as 'spam', which have multiple meanings, have only one to the AI, and as the beginning of the exhibition shows, surrealism and the work of René Magritte means nothing to the computer. The physical exploration of the photos reveals some odd as well as troubling matches – and encourages the audience questions about the supposedly neutral applications of AI, whether in driverless cars or surveillance.

The exhibition is a physical manifestation of work Paglen has undertaken with Kate Crawford, a researcher and professor who specialises in machine learning, AI and its social implications.The pair have also curated an exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan that shows the categories assigned to various photos, and also created a tool where users can upload a photo of themselves and see how the AI categorises them - often with disturbing results.

The exhibition From 'Apple' to 'Anomaly' is free to entre and is on display at the Barbican until 16 February 2020.

  • Barbican Centre
  • London
  • Thursday, 26 September 2019
  • Sunday, 16 February 2020
  • January, February, September, October, November, December