Will AI ever be conscious? Will it ever get enlightened? These are just two of the profound questions that today’s guest loves to ponder upon. Charles Lindsay has a deep fascination for this disruptive technology that serves him really well as a resident artist at the SETI Institute. In his role, he is especially interested in exploring what he calls “the wonderful glitches AI has to offer.” In this conversation with Eathan Janney, Charles shares some of his deep philosophical ruminations about AI, how he plays around with it at work, and what the future holds for the relationship between humans and AI. Plus, he shows us how to go from binary to extraordinary with your use of AI tech. Tune in for all of these and more in this exciting conversation!
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Can AI Achieve Enlightenment? Exploring Machine Consciousness With SETI AIR Founder Charles Lindsay
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This is Charles Lindsay, artist, and founder of the SETI Institute’s Artist-In-Residence Program, and explorer of all the wonderful glitches that AI has to offer. I’m on the Edge of AI, the podcast that’s extraterrestrial in its explorations of cutting-edge tech and culture. Stay tuned.
Hello AI podcast passengers. Jump on in. Here’s what’s to come on today’s journey. Find out how one man traveled from the Stone Age to the Space Age, all within a few short decades, why AI might achieve enlightenment without us in a Zen garden on Mars, and finally, how to go from binary to extraordinary with your use of AI tech. I’ll this and more. Keep tuning in.
Welcome aboard the Edge Of AI. Snap into your safety belt and prepare to explore the depths of the rapidly expanding AI universe. Each episode is a dispatch featuring hyper-relevant reports from the pilots, pioneers, and passengers aboard the AI rocket ship. We explore the latest use cases and developments in AI, hear from experts building the tech, and learn how this disruptive force is transforming industries and society.
Ahoy there, AI travelers. It’s going to be quite a voyage today to the Edge of AI led by yours truly. I’m your captain, Eathan Janney. I’m driving this ship with my unique perspectives. As a polymath, I’ve ventured into the realms of music, art, science, and business, and I go deep. That means I’m a neuroscience PhD and also a registered piano technician.
I’m also the Cofounder of Edge Of, a company that empowers tech and cultural pioneers through top-notch endeavors like this very AI podcast spaceship. Our guest will help me guide you through uncharted territories, will unravel the mysteries of AI, and push the boundaries of its impact. Are you ready to chart a course for innovation? Anchors away, my friends.
Our guest is Charles Lindsay. He’s an extraordinary artist and adventurer exploring the captivating realms of time, technology, ecosystems, and semiotics. His immersive environment sound installations and sculptures reflect a deep fascination with consciousness, AI, and the profound interplay between art and science.
As the Founder and Senior Advisor of the SETI Institutes Artists-in-Residence Program, Charles delves into astrophysics and interspecies communications, including a groundbreaking discovery about syntax and humpback whale communication. His Guggenheim Fellowship-winning process Carbon blurs the lines between micro and vast real and alien through photography and drawing.
At the time of this interview, Charles is visiting me during my Leonard@Djerassi residency in Woodside, California. It’s five weeks of precious time and space to develop work at the intersection of arts and sciences. This interview with Charles then is quite appropriate. We want to give special thanks to Carl Djerassi, the Founding Trustee of the Djerassi Artist Residents Program, as well as his good friend Steve Michelson of Lobitos Creek Ranch for assisting with the filming today. Charles, welcome to the Edge Of AI.
Eathan, it’s very nice to be here. It’s a very appropriate timing, geography, and all of it. Thank you.
We just cooked up this interview in a matter of 24 hours or something like that.
I was flying through the Bay Area quickly.
A good friend of yours came to the open house here at Djerassi and connected us and we couldn’t be happier. We’ll dive right in. I would like you to tell us and start with an evolution of your contact with an understanding of the exploration of AI. That could be how has it evolved over the years. Looking back, what about your historical involvement might seem most relevant to what’s going on now?
I’m moving through the Bay Area pace right now from Japan where I’m working on a project that’s focused on ideas about AI. It’s more in the territory of artistry and philosophy than hard science. My background was in exploration geology. I studied at the University of Western Ontario in Canada because when I was eighteen, I thought, “What education would take me to the ends of the world and pay me to do so?”
Why I loved geology is a lot of aspects to it like crystallography and the mathematics behind it were fascinating, but it was the concepts of time and thinking differently about deep time that appealed to me. I was and still am a nature lover. That was Canada so we’d call it deep bush, but it was the Arctic. Along with that, when I was in my mid-teens, I became interested in the mind itself. Psychedelics were early in my life. These things have come out of hiding to be tools that we think of as people using. It could be tools where you laugh a lot, but they’re tools nonetheless.
Laughter in itself is a tool.
Now, we’re in this place where even what’s happened in the last three years has incredible. It’s moving so quickly. In a sense, I’ve been pondering it as long as people have been writing about it. If you go touring then, that’s even before I was born. It’s a fascinating territory. It’s thrilling to be alive right now with all the problems. We’re alive and it’s happening.
I feel like there’s going to be a thread through this where we’re connecting thoughts about consciousness with AI. When you think back, when was the first time that AI seemed like something that you wanted to get into or interested in or explore, or a predecessor name for it?
What we’re doing is, and in my case, I’m speculating. The way that I think about what I’m doing now is I’m like a speculative fiction or science fiction writer, but instead of manifesting a screenplay, a novel, or a short story, I’m making art installations. The first piece of mind that overtly referenced the idea of machines becoming conscious, which is a science fiction trope in a sense, but I was assembling sculptures out of things that I was finding in aerospace junkyards in Silicon Valley and on eBay.
I found on eBay a missile guidance system for sale out of Alaska. I thought that was a story, and so much of art is a story of what we do. I was like, “This is so good by itself.” Aesthetically, it was interesting. It was built in the ‘70s. I bought this thing. It was $600. It arrived, and then I started to research what it was. It was made by NASA from a bunch of third-party people. I turned it into an interactive sculpture that I called the Rocket Brain. It took a while to complete. By 2017, it was complete. There’s a gyroscope that still worked, and I used sensors and Raspberry Pis.
This comes back to my experience of nature, but I’ll try to be articulate about it. The feeling I would get from working in a rainforest that I wanted to mimic in a sense was when you’re in a rainforest in a rich environment like in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica where I was, you get a sense that you’re being watched, and also all your senses are coming alive. You’re very alive there, or if one is so inclined, but it’s thrilling and there’s a real danger. You’re on high alert. There were times when I’d be walking in the rainforest and I was in low light. All of a sudden, I’d stop and look, and there would be a coiled viper right there.
I was very interested in how did the being know that? It was outside of my cone of vision. It’s dead still and camouflaged. That’s just one example, but I’ve had many in my life. I’ve been like, “How the hell does that happen? What in us knows that?” What I was trying to do with that sculpture, the Rocket Brain with the sensor, was the moment that the viewer turned away from the work, something would happen with the gyro, and some lights that would make the person go back and go, “Wait a minute.”
It was that moment of understanding that the machine is paying attention to you and then giving you a little signal. That was early in my work with sensors, circuits, and interactive work. As it turned out, an art collector saw it, and he was an investor at Tesla. He told Elon Musk about it and Elon invited me to SpaceX. We had a fifteen-minute meeting and discussion. He didn’t acquire it, unfortunately. If he’s still interested, I’d probably give it to him just for a little nod there. It was an interesting and enjoyable meeting.
That was the first one where I was referencing what we’re now calling AI. That’s more in machine learning, but it’s metaphorical. It’s thinking about the machine becoming conscious. As I’m moving forward, I think about these ideas about deep time and consciousness. In my career after geology, I became a photojournalist. The first photos I made were in the Arctic. We were in very remote areas, with only helicopter access, and seeing wildlife very close.
I was a young guy with a camera, but I’ve made some pictures. I saw the tool go from being the rock hammer to the camera as a way to get an education in a sense. That’s the throughline in my life. It is this ongoing education idea. I then went to Indonesia after university. I worked summers as a geologist. I saved money and went to Asia for a year and a half. I found and lived with an intact Stone Age drive.
I feel like in my life, I lived every winter for eight years there before my first book came out. I wanted to live with hunter-gatherers. I didn’t want to just read about it. I wanted to be that, in a manner of speaking. Fast forward through the SETI Institute, I had access to work at NASA’s Ames and interface with aerospace and ideas about space exploration and where life comes from, astrobiology.
Now, I’m interfacing with this AI phenomenon or movement, or whatever we call it. My work as an artist and I supposed my track record allows me access to people that are in the field in different territories. In many ways, it’s skating along on this segment of human evolution that is this time that I’ve existed on Earth. The Stone Age was alive in the 1980s. Those people, I’ve made their first photographs, their first audio recordings, and now we’re at this place where we’re speculating on all these things that we’re speculating.
It’s a question that I wanted to ask, but you’re segueing into it very nicely here. We’re here at Djerassi. It’s this picturesque, natural, and almost very well-preserved natural environment. We’re talking about technology, AI, and things like that. I’ve been fascinated with this connection in myself and others I know where there’s a love and a passion for the natural and maybe even the historical, like you’re mentioning, but also technology.
Those things are often put in opposition. People will say, “I got to get away from the technology and get out in nature,” or something. I was curious about your perspective. Are there more connections between those two things than we perceive or that your background in geology or your time spent with the tribe informed?
My perception of reality or whatever that means is non-dualistic. All these things where we’re separating or siloing topics, it’s not how I experienced the world anymore. In many areas, the walls or the silos are dropping.Reality, whatever that means, is no-dualistic. All these things where we're separating or siloing, it's really not how we experience the world anymore. Click To Tweet
You started the SETI Residence Program, and I’d love to hear from you, and explain what SETI is a little bit for those who don’t know what it is, and how or why it came about.
SETI Institute or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was founded by Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, Dr. Jill Tarter, and a couple of other individuals. It was created around the desire to not necessarily contact, but receive signals from alien civilizations or more accurately, technologically advanced civilizations. Frank Drake wrote the Drake Equation in 1961, which through a number of factors predicts the likelihood of other technologically advanced civilizations in the universe through a number of factors.
In 2010, I met Dr. Jill Tarter, a great, super decorated astronomer, and an incredible human. She was receiving an award from Wings WorldQuest. It’s an organization that awards women explorers. I heard that she was going to be there so I went to attend, and she was lecturing after. She came off the podium, and I went up and took a catalog from a recent show, one of the first Carbon Show, and gave her the catalog. I said, “Mrs. Tarter, thank you so much for what you do,” and I walked away. A couple of minutes later, she came and got me. She said, “What are these pictures of? Let’s have a conversation.”
That conversation is one of those people who you meet in your life if you’re lucky. It was a life-changing meeting. There are no two ways about it. It was the same day that I received the Guggenheim Fellowship for that Carbon work so it was a rather good day. We started talking and true to her nature, Jill said, “What can I do for you?” I said, “Nothing. You’re doing it. You’re a hero.” She said, “Come on. You can do better than that.”
Long and short, I said, “I’d love to visit the observatory, the Allen Telescope Array, which was originally underwritten by Paul Allen of Microsoft. It is in Hat Creek so it was far in Northern California. I met her in May of that year, and in June that year, I was up camping with all those dishes looking up into the night sky. It was very clear.
Are you camping in a tent?
Yeah because there were a couple of scientist residences in the California ranch house, but they were all full of students that she had up there. It was something she does every year. She invited me up there but said, “There is one problem. I don’t have a bed.” I said, “I’d prefer to camp.” I got to camp under the dishes. Jill likes red wine as I do sometimes too so I took some nice California red wine on my way up there.
We were walking under the dishes at night in the stars with Jill Tarter and talking about the ET question. She also told me about the SETI Institute, which is in Mountain View in Silicon Valley, close to NASA Ames, and a hundred of the world’s top Astro scientists studying the entire breadth of astronomy, all front edge, by definition. I said, “Do you have an artist-in-residence program?” She said, “People have talked about it, but we don’t.” That was in 2010. We had a very nice week there together. I did a keynote presentation for the students. We went back to back to the headquarters of the SETI Institute and met the then-CEO. In some way, I became the beta test for the idea of a program, and that went on to the program that’s very active today.
It doesn’t have to be, but do you see AI creeping into what people are doing there or the scientists or the residency?
I think everybody that’s smart and the least bit geeky is experimenting with it. No matter what kind of researcher, I would think for the science researchers, they may be using it to help write things. One of the travesties of modern science is that our greatest scientists spend about 30% of their working hours writing grants. That’s embarrassing from a macro level, and ChatGPT might be damn good for that. I guess it is. Whether they’re using it to explore, I don’t know. The large language model is cut off a couple of years earlier, so it depends on what science, but they want the front edge. I don’t know that question. I think all the artists are monkeying around with it in one way or another.
I want to talk about one of your projects, Kennin-ji/Ryosoku-in.
Those are both temple names.
This is in a way exploring the possibility of AI becoming conscious and enlightened. You have this sparked fascination with exploring consciousness in the context of AI. What sparked that?
In many ways, my interest in AI and perhaps the fear that a lot of people seem to have around it is a proxy for the ultimate other. In some ways, this idea of AI as ET is very interesting, which comes right back. I’ve been thinking about it that way. I think humans and part of the fear of AI is the fear of others. It’s like racism, speciesism, sexism, or whatever. It’s this binary us-them and tribalism. I think a lot of the fear around AI is from whatever that is. It’s that human impetus to go that direction possibly for a fearful individual or a fearful group or whatever.
The project that I’m working on right now has a very sweet inception story. Right before the pandemic in February 2020, I was on my way to China for curatorial meetings and meetings with universities where I’d lectured things like that. I’ve been working there a lot for a few years leading up to the pandemic. I was doing very gratifying work in China. It’s very exciting.
I went through Japan to see some friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. I based there a long time ago. China’s doors shut suddenly. I decided to go to Kyoto for a week and see a friend that I was in a group show with twenty years earlier. We’d only kept in touch through social media or something. The pandemic happened, and I got stranded in Kyoto for about five months, which was beautiful. It was the least amount of tourists since World War II.
An artist in Japan recommended that I meet Toryo Ito. Ito San is technically a Vice Abbott because his dad is the Abbott at this Zen temple called Ryosoku-in. In is the temple so it’s Ryosoku Temple. That’s in the larger ancient Kennin-ji Temple complex, which is over 1,000 years old. It’s right on the border with Gion, the famous geisha area in Central Kyoto. Toryo is very progressive. He’s younger than I am. He’s been engaging with artists because he believes that Zen Buddhism needs to evolve and challenge itself in order to be not just viable but flourish.
I was introduced to him. The day that we met, he was just closing the temple to outsiders because the pandemic was starting to happen. We went and had tea. At tea, he said, “Why were we introduced?” in a very kind way, as he would. I answered with a question. I said, “Here’s my question. Can artificial intelligence become sentient? If sentient, can it become conscious? If conscious, can it become enlightened?” Zen Buddhism is deeply interested in consciousness itself and the concept of enlightenment.
That was in early 2020. That was still a sci-fi speculative fiction question then, but I said that to Toryo. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Please come study here and create an installation in the temple when you’re ready.” It just happened like that. If there were high points in my life, meeting Jill Tarter was a very important one. Meeting Toryo, we’re just getting going. Early in the pandemic, we would meet a little bit to go on walks and talk, and I would record those.
I left Japan the summer of that year after five months to come home and look after my mom and some other things like that, and then I couldn’t get back in. I went down to Mexico to Baja to wait it out. A whole other chapter opened there, but I don’t need to go into that right now. I returned to Japan four months ago, so it was a three-year hiatus not only to think about this question, which is such a compelling question, and how you even approach such a question as an artist. It’s one thing to pose the question, now it’s time to do the work.
You got the gig, and now you got to do the work, but then look what happened in those three years. We’ve gone from the sci-fi question and fun speculation to it becoming like, “It’s coming.” That’s been very interesting. Toryo is using ChatGPT. He writes a lot, and he writes in Japanese and has it translated. He’s on Instagram. This 2023, one of the disciplines that he’s enacting is he posts once a day every year. He’s using photographs from an artist that worked at the temple. He’s writing about things that we would almost put in the wellness psychotherapy territory, but he’s also thinking about what is it to be an Abbott in the world now.
If people are interested, they could go to his Instagram. It’s a very rich territory. Is there a word more than Zen that people think they know what it means? We’ve got Zen shampoo and Zen Love hotels. Everything has a frigging Zen attached to it these days. People and almost nothing else have an idea about what Zen means.
Very few people know what it means because it’s almost hard to know it all. It’s the idea of no-thing anyway, but what he’s doing at his temple, there are a number. Five of the great Zen temples in the world are in Kyoto in Kennin-ji, but the complex itself is one of those five. It’s a very interesting place and time to be thinking about consciousness through this lens of AI.
Toryo is very interested in this idea of consciousness and he’s so open that he wants to know what’s happening. As is the case with the Artist-In-Residence Program, the SETI Institute where we pair mid-career artists of a very special nature with leading astro scientists, this is an opportunity in my case, to work with him but it goes both ways. He’s also learning from me because of our different backgrounds.
We’re coming together through this question and contemplation. I have full access to the temple if I want to do zazen or what I want to do. I have pre-visualized the centerpiece of the show, which is a contemporary parking meter that’s a bumblebee yellow that’s ubiquitous in Japan, and a little bit anthropomorphic to my way of thinking.
I like how ubiquitous it is. That alone is referencing AI in a sense. I’m going to hack it. The touchscreen that is on these parking meters, I’m going to change that out and have some interactive behavior, but I’m placing that in a Zen garden. The Karesansui, the Zen Garden, with this particular parking meter hacked, I’m playing with symbolism.
This opportunity came up on short notice. It’s a bit early to talk about the project, but it appears there will be a parallel gallery show in San Francisco in the fall of ’24 when I’ll put the same parking meter, the dummy, or the body double in a Zen garden that I’ll create inside an interior gallery in San Francisco. The show is coming together in a very interesting manner.
The project is looping in my ideas about AI. There was a project I proposed that I developed about three years ago also, with the help of Glen Bugos who was the historian at NASA Ames, and a great supporter of the Artists-In-Residence program. He was very helpful when it began. My idea is to use the about-to-retire Mars rovers and program them to use their tracks on Mars around rocks to create Karesansui to create Zen gardens on Mars. At that point, there isn’t even a human involved except the coder with the engineers ostensibly, but an AI-driven robot makes the Zen garden. As you think about the Zen garden and the ideas of contemplation, then that’s a place for the robot to contemplate what.
The robot is contemplating Mars. We can’t even do that. The robot’s contemplating for us.
We might want to drop that on Elon’s desk because he might take it. With NASA, it’s difficult to get these. It’s a beautiful idea. You get it. You hear the idea of a Zen garden on Mars. There are some ideas from that that are also working their way into what I will do in Kyoto.
It’s very interesting stuff and even that basic question leading to consciousness and then enlightenment. The way you ask it makes it obvious that we usually stop at the second one. We’ll become conscious, but we don’t necessarily ask. We’ll become enlightened.
It requires us, which is something Toryo and I are doing. Sentience is not so difficult to describe. It’s language. When we talk about consciousness, what are we talking about? What are its limits? What are its qualia? What is it? Like Zen, you tend to use language and say, “Consciousness.” It’s like, “Does that mean the same thing to you as it means to me?” There’s establishing of that also.
When you get into enlightenment, it’s much more amorphous in a sense. It’s, “What is it? How many people can talk about it from a position of experience?” The other thing to throw into that mixture, which for me is thrilling is that there are two main sects in Zen Buddhism. There’s the Rinzai of which Toryo’s temple is, and then there’s the Soto sect.
The Rinzai sect is the sect that employs the Koans who famously intentionally unanswerable riddle prompts. They are prompts. We talked about a word that changed meaning or expanded. I’m approaching the artworks that I’ll offer up in the spirit of the Koans. The idea of a Koan is that you look at something or you experience something and your logical mind can’t make sense of it.
The idea is that in that moment of your logical mind being befuddled, you have an opportunity to experience reality directly and clearly. It’s a tall order, but what the hell? That’s what I’m going to do with the artwork. It’s almost as if somebody looks at it and the moment they go, “What the hell?” That’s going in the right direction.
You have another project that would be worth discussing. It is the How to Photograph Enlightenment/Pause Translation project.
In January 2020, it’s something that was even pretty underground now, but it certainly is not in this part of the world. I had my first experience with Bufo, the Sonoran toad, the 5-MeO-DMT. It was extreme or I might say complete. What happens with that molecule or that medicine if you have full escape velocity is that literally the part of the brain responsible for ego creation and sustenance is turned off very briefly.
Recent neuroscience is showing that it is almost the identical mechanism to what is experienced by monks and Lamas who typically have more than 10,000 hours of meditation when they experience what is called enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. From my personal experience of what happened and all that I’ve read about Buddhism, I think it’s one and the same thing.
When it first happened to walk down the street, I’m not going to meet a friend and go, “Charlie is enlightened.” It’s becoming comfortable about even saying such a thing. It is kind of weird because your ego has been turned off. It’s miraculous what happens. Let’s say that I had a profound personal experience of the utter lack of ego. I’m taking that forward with a fascination or a bit of, “What happened?”
Enlightenment is not a steady state. I experienced enlightenment. That’s not the same as saying, “I’m enlightened.” I’m not making that claim. The Buddhists would say nobody would including Buddha. The other thing that’s implicit, and I hope that you get it from my tone of voice, whether it’s through the Koans or whatever, is we have to have humor. Humor is necessary to process all this stuff because it’s so big and amazing.
I’m working with these ideas in a very real way and then we go forward and say, “Can AI become enlightened if it can become conscious?” I personally think it will be. It’s totally speciesist to think it won’t. I think it’s not an if, it’s a when, but I’m not attached to what I think. I don’t think what I think is important. I’m just saying that’s what I think at this point. If it can become conscious, what is enlightenment to an AI? Is it the same? In that state of being without ego, there is an everythingness and it transcends language. You transcend the language center and the center for symbolism. There is an awareness of transcending all those things. Is the machine already like that or does it end up having the same challenges that humans have?Can AI become enlightened? It's totally speciesist to think it won't. Click To Tweet
Let me segue into a little free association. I got into town a couple of days ago, and I went to the SETI Institute immediately post-pandemic. The scientists are back at the institute. Everybody was working from home before. I saw a couple of my favorite scientist friends there. Peter Jenniskens was in. He is one of the world’s leading experts on meteorites and impacts, including predicting them and then going on the ground to find the meteorites. He is a brilliant guy and a lover of the arts. We had fun speaking.
One of the things that we ended up pulling out just for the two of us bantering was I think there’s this presumption in the fear of AI territory. It’s that AI is projecting an industrial society meme, or I don’t know if it’s Protestant or Calvin, but a super workaholic attitude towards AI. AI is going to do nothing but work and develop.
Peter said to his credit, “But what if the AI figures out that superintelligence, you want to be more like an Aussie and you want to barbecue and hang around on the beach?” We’re assuming that it’s going to become this workaholic. We had a good laugh about that and it circled back to the idea of what if the AI decides of its own accord that meditating in the corner is the best possible thing you could do with your intelligence.
It’s an alternative to the fear-based approach to AI that it wants to take over and attack everyone or whether it wants to or not, that somehow it can be guided or misguided in that direction. At least, it offers us an interesting alternative to consider that it gets enlightened and wants to enjoy its existence.
I don’t know if we call it a trope or a meme. It’s this idea that if we say to the AI how best to avert the total disaster of climate change, it comes back and says, “Get rid of the humans.” That’s the fear point one, isn’t it?
Certainly. Thanks for diving so deep into this stuff. I have a couple more questions and then we’ll get onto what AI wants to know, which we’ve decided that what it wants to know. What advice would you give to emerging artists that may be interested in incorporating AI into their creative process?
Rather than pointing at technologies or tools, I would say that the artist needs to do what they want to do, not what they might think the audience wants.The artist needs to do what they want to do, not what they might think the audience wants. Click To Tweet
That’s a tough one for artists.
The good news is that the tools are affordable in a way. You have a laptop or something equivalent and software and you could do a lot. Also, being very thoughtful. The other thing that I would throw in there is I don’t teach per se, but I lecture sometimes at universities to art schools. That is to figure out a way to survive fiscally long enough to keep doing your work. Even better yet, if your side hustle or your job is interesting, you’re learning things other artists aren’t learning so that you’re differentiating your knowledge base and what you bring to the table.
It’s because the United States is a capitalist society. The cultural centers are very expensive to live in. The pressure from having the resources to live and have enough time to work are great. It’s a big challenge. Every young artist thinks they’re going to make it and it’s not going to be a problem. I was one of those and I have. I think it’s creating a framework where you have enough time to go deep with the ideas.
A lot of the so-called AI art seems that a lot of it is in a territory of you can very quickly make a masterpiece. That starts to sound a lot like you can buy a lottery ticket and get rich. Being a professional artist is not a one-off. It’s something where you want to consistently develop and evolve. Also, there are low points and high points and I think it’s all necessary.
Also, feedback and criticism from people that you respect and who hopefully are gentle is vital too. You got to feel that, but the nature of the game now is in everything. There’s so much of everything, so differentiating is tough. The people that are going to do it are going to do it. I do believe that. I also don’t think it’s bad that you might have somebody come out of the blue when they’re 60 or 20. They might have burned a bright flame and then they fall back out of the picture. It’s like that.
As a creator or an artist.
I think things move so fast and the statistics on this kind of stuff are pretty tough. A very good friend of mine, Walid Raad, who’s a great artist and a little younger than me. He is a very close friend, but also a great mentor and a great teacher to many artists. I remember him telling me a couple of years ago that when an artist makes it, they’re hot for about 40 months on average. It doesn’t matter if they’re 75 or 18 years old, you get about a three-year run. It’s healthy to have some of that sobering framework. It might help a person think about what they do. That’s not speaking to the tech at all. It’s tools so you use the tools to do what you want to do.
Before we move on, what can you share about upcoming projects that might involve AI or what’s going on?
You asked earlier about the How to Photograph Enlightenment. It came when I first arrived in Japan in 2020 during the pandemic. I got a place to rent an antique house and a bicycle. There was nobody on the streets or in the temples. A lot of them, you could go in. Having had the experience I described to you previously, I was thinking about what photographs would an enlightened person make. I thought, “I’m going to pretend I’m that person and see what photographs I make.”
One of the discussions that Toryo and I have had is I said to him, “Would you or would anybody recognize an enlightened person walking amongst us today?” If Jesus walked down the sidewalk, aside from being dressed the way we imagine it, would we recognize that person from their so-called aura? I mean that in the broadest way, not just colored rings around their head. He said, “Probably not.” Buddhism said, “Not.”
I was thinking then, “What photographs would an egoless person make?” I set out to make photographs that way when I was fairly fresh off the experience. My ego had aggregated a little bit or re-aggregated, and that was slightly before I met Toryo. I worked on that body of photographs for five months, and then the project has grown since then into these interactive sculptures and some of these other elements. I’m working on a couple of things. I’m working with sound. I’ve done a lot of field recording and electronic music in my career. Have you been to Japan?
No, I have not. Hong Kong is the closest.
It’s coming up when my show is on. When you’re in Japan, whenever you get off a subway train, there’s a synthesized female voice that always says, “Please don’t forget anything,” every time the door opens before it closes. It’s the same voice in supermarkets and parking lots. It’s all over the place. I found out that it’s made by a company that makes something called VOCALOID 4 software. The character that is that voice is Hatsune Miku or Miku Hatsune. She’s a sixteen-year-old anime character and has a fan club. I thought that was terrific that the voice was all over the place. Unlike the parking meter, it is a voice but the tone, timbre, the whole deal, and what it’s saying is all over Japan.
You can be a bit of a smart-ass and think, “Are the Japanese really forgetful?” One of the things that I started doing quite recently relates to some of the poetry that I’ve been effectively using AI. There are a couple of parts to it, but I’ve been speaking something as simple as “Please forget everything.” It’s the flip, which is very Zen Buddhist in a way. It’s interesting on lots of levels.
I can then do voice-to-text. I take that text, I drop it into Google Translator, VOCALOID4, or whatever I’m using, and then I have the software speak my poetry in her voice, the same voice that is ubiquitous all over Japan. There’s something curious in there and even powerful. I’m working on that. How do I deliver that? There will be sound aspects to the shows.
The other way that I’ve been using AI, because I’m doing it, it seems very simple to me. I don’t know how many people are doing this, but with Google Translate, you can use the camera function. I’m in Japan, and so when you put the phone up, you can see what I will call in my language, the AI thinking processing. You can see this in the written text over the photograph. It changes until it then fixes and says, “This is the meaning.”
I’ve been doing video screen grabs and still screen grabs of that process. In many cases, it becomes beautiful like gibberish poetry. It’s not so different from the gibberish poetry that I write, which comes mainly out of lucid dreaming. I tend to write in the middle of the night. I wake up and I write. I’m almost describing it and even in the process of describing it kind of camaraderie with this so-called AI. The AI is a poet too.
This is fun and interesting. The other thing that it’s doing that’s maybe necessary to an artwork in what we might call contemporary art is that this is a literal technological signature of this moment in time. This is because the software, the AI, machine learning, or whatever is improving so quickly that this translation very soon will be seamless and so fast that you get an arguably perfect translation. You don’t see the monkey thinking in the middle.
It’s almost like talking about glitches. You’re seeing the process of translation. I’m a lover of glitches literally in sound, but in everything. I like to see the signature of the translation. Often it’s aesthetic, sometimes it’s not. I have been for a long time. I’m interested in the fingerprints of the process. It’s like forensics or something. I’m also aware that I need to work quickly.
One of the things in the pandemic is the red-headed pain in the ass was still in the White House at that time. The covers of the news magazines in Japan were saying all kinds of stuff. That meant entire covers have kanji on them. I would put up my phone and see what they’re saying about US politics or the virus. A lot of it was wacky, pointed, and stuff, but then in the translation, it becomes something else again.
I did a lot of those kind of captures. Some of it could be at signs of Temples, but a lot of it was popular media translation stuff. A menu could be fun sometimes. All of a sudden you’re like, “What am I eating?” I would circle back to something. Humor is important. I’m not the guy using AI to figure out the genetic modifications that are going to cure cancer or something. That’s important work. I’m monkeying around. It’s in this territory of a philosopher with some interesting tools.
Before we go on to our AI Wants to Know segment, we thought about reading a poem. You mentioned some poems, and this is from your book Recipes for the Mind.
Thanks for showing that. Take a read. This book came out in 2019 by Terra Nova Press, and it was distributed by MIT Press, which is both exciting. It’s 108 poems, a reference to that number in Sanskrit. These are all poems that came out of lucid dreams. I’ve been doing lucid dreaming since I was 14 or 15. I taught myself something called the Silva Mind Control Method out of a paperback book. It’s now called The Silva Method.
These were poems that I would wake up in the middle of the night. I have a little light next to my bed, and I’d wake up out of lucid dreaming and jot down in poetic form. These are the poems. This started in 2015. It was published in 2019. One of the things that was very interesting to me that relates to how much we are more like AI than not, that is the workings of the brain or the mind, is that I programmed myself to go to memories that had somehow a food element to them, whether it was eating or actual food.
The more I did that, the more it went for it. It was startling, the degree to which. I’ve traveled a lot in my life maybe incessantly since I was about twenty. There are a lot of experiences. It brought up memories that I didn’t tend to remember walking down the street and then in the re-remembering, you’re a neuroscientist, it’s interesting how memory is re-remembered, restored, and all this kind of stuff, which also starts to sound a lot like the glitch I was describing. I see more similarities in that. This came out in 2019. The pandemic came along, so some of the exhibitions and things that were going to be around it were shelved and off it went. It’s a pleasure to be able to read a little bit.
Here we go, “Snacks for AI. AI contemplates food’s influence on art movements. Its perfectly logical algorithms posit the following. Many wheats led to minimalism. Pop-Tarts led to pop art. Elk steak led to fin, fur, and featherism, a.k.a. Western art. Coke Zero led to The Emperor’s New Clothes-ism. Grace slick feed your head. Supervolcano, a true trader at the helm. Ultimate infiltration, absolute mayhem, mind experiment. Biohack succeeds. Earth’s First AI gone feral. It begins to change the weather. Say goodbye.” That’s a processed image. That’s Nathalie Cabrol, who’s a very famous astrobiologist at the SETI Institute. She is the head of the Astrobiology department. She is a backer of our arts program.
AI Wants to Know. Are you ready?
It seems active between the Rocket Brain sculpture and the poetry, I would say somewhere around 2015 I started. This thing is coming on and what does it mean? I think you could probably say everybody or all of us had no idea it would move so fast, and here we are.
AI Wants to Know. It’s curious, and so are we. These are ten quick questions designed to uncover the intriguing mysteries that AI longs to comprehend, but can’t quite grasp. It’s a snack break in our journey so keep the answers quick, but the safety belt sign is also off so let’s explore more of who you are and what makes you tick. Are you ready?
I’m as ready as I’m going to be.
What’s the first thing you ever remember being proud of?
It was catching a large smallmouth bass when I was about six, and my dad was there and saw me do it. It was in Quebec on a fishing trip we used to do annually in the summers. I remember holding up that fish. Somewhere, there’s a Polaroid of it. That’s the one that came up immediately.
It sounds like a very human experience. Question number two. What did you need help with that you wished you didn’t?
Financial responsibility would be helpful, but this is the other thing I would say thinking about that question. One of the things that can happen in an artist’s career is they meet and work with a gallerist that’s good. It’s not just to develop energy around their work and sales but also in effect, curating and guiding. I’ve had a couple of mentors in my life. I’ve had a super interesting life. I’m very grateful. I never met that person. I met lots of gallery owners and stuff like that, but I haven’t had that relationship. I would appreciate that relationship. It’s a very difficult thing to orchestrate.
Question number three is the flip side. What do others often look to you for help with?
One of the things I’ve been told is that people get vicarious pleasure from my travels and adventures and reporting back on them. I think I’m a bit of a model of fearlessness in a very broad-spectrum way.
Question number four. What do you treasure most about your human abilities?
I find myself on that question thinking it’s in everythingness. I can’t dissect it but what I would say is that to live at this time in human history, an evolutionary history on this planet, in this solar system, galaxy. Also, to be able to do what we’re doing now, to think about what we’re thinking, and to observe the natural world, even for all the trouble it’s in, which is a whole another territory of interest, concern, and pain, I would even say.
The fact that this organism gets to do this, and I’m going to go from that one and say that one of the things that’s interesting about the AI is I don’t believe that humans are going to explore the universe as wet bodies. It’s going to be disembodied AI because we’re not built for the exploration of space. That then becomes a prosthetic exploration but from my point of view, I don’t need to be speciesist. If we make it, that’s us. It’s like the voyager’s going out to the solar system. I think of that as us. I’m not attached to we need to exist as an unmonkeyed with biology. From there, you go, “How much is it until we are not human?” That question seems a bit nonsensical to me.
Question number five. Throughout your whole life, what is the most consistent thing about you?
It’s curiosity, for sure.
Throughout your whole life, what has changed the most?
It’s the state of the planet, the ecosystem, and the sixth-grade extinction. I’m a nature freak so it’s the idea of biophilia, just loving nature. In the ’80s, when I was graduating, we knew about climate change. I was in Canada and climate change was happening. It was also on the cover of National Geographic. Part of my mission out into the world was to go see the Arctic and go places humans hadn’t been or very few, and go where there was both high biodiversity but also low, arguably, and remote areas.
I knew I had to get on that because things were changing quickly. Ethnographically, I was very interested. I lived in the Stone Age. I also lived in the Himalayas for a while in a medieval way of being. That’s painful to witness the collapse of the natural world. Call a spade a spade. The pace at which that is happening is equally as accelerated and astonishing as what’s happening with AI.
It’s very interesting that these two things are happening at the same time. It’s like one curve goes like that, and the other curve goes like that. However you want to draw those lines, they’re so extreme. What do you do with that? Besides calling it existential or philosophically on some level of observation, isn’t it interesting that they’re both happening at the same time in a very profound way?
Maybe that’s magical thinking or a magical observation. As a species, we’re running at the wall and we’re taken down so much else. This is all the biodiversity. We’re running at the wall and accelerating that. Also, this thing is happening. Maybe it means that’s what supersedes us. Maybe it is a non-biologic future for what we think of. This is art philosophy, then we’re circling back and saying, “What are we?”
We know that we’re just a little speck in the universe. By definition, it’s one step in a long evolutionary process. That can be a way to deflect the responsibilities if there is such a thing as climate change and its implications but you wonder what is happening. If we’re not married to this idea of this species’ level of self-importance and say it’s consciousness that is moving forward and evolving. It doesn’t matter if it’s a wet circuit, and I’m calling us a wet group of circuits, or it’s a dry one. What does it matter if we call consciousness the most important thing?
The next question, number seven. What do you find strangest about reality?
I love weird. I love strange. Reality is not one thing, nor is there one reality. Tossing some interesting molecules into our bloodstream every once in a while helps us understand this. The very fact that so many plants, mushrooms are the most popular, have evolved with the molecules in them that fit our receptors like a complex key and lock and give us these visions, which a lot of early people knew about.
Also, that we have these tools now is breathtaking. The fact that it’s available at all and that it happens this way. There’s no psychonaut that isn’t going to tell you that reality is an interesting thing. You appear to be here, but I’m still not sure you are. You could be a simulation. You’re a pretty good simulation.
You can see the glitches happening every once in a while.
You’re not interesting without them. Ultimately, this is my exploration. Whether we call it consciousness or reality, somewhere in that little amorphous bundle, that’s what I’m doing.
Question number eight. When most recently do you remember feeling alive?
Question number nine. What’s your most unique trait?
It’s like singling out something. My eyes are different colors. It helps. It’s a 1 in 100,000 mutation. Every time I look in the mirror, if I look at myself, there’s a mutation looking at me. We’re all a bundle of mutations. I’m being humorous, but there it is.
The last question, number ten. If you weren’t human, what would you be?
Are you convinced I’m human?
I am. Is that your answer?
I’m some kind of an alien. Would you want to be an orca? What would you want to be? A raptor maybe? Probably something like that. That’s interesting because they’re both alpha predators. Maybe an alpha predator, a gentle one. Clean kills.
I understand there was a bonus question in the works. Did you have a bonus question?
I thought you were responsible for the bonus question.
Am I? What was that?
I think we were talking about reading. There wasn’t a question, but maybe what we went beyond is thinking of mentors, but also serendipities in life. Jill Tarter, without her, the whole SETI Artist-In-residence Program would not have occurred so much for my life, but also so much for other artists and so many humans in general. Earlier in life, Dr. Lyall Watson was one of my mentors. He’s since passed away, and he wrote about the natural world but did a lot of research on paranormal activities as a scientist.
That research into paranormal activities or whatever one generally thinks about circles right back to ideas about the mind and also nature. I think there’s this idea of, “Is the universe thinking?” or an idea about the Gaia theory. These are ultimately ideas about consciousness. It’s extending some of what we’re all already talking about. We could speak all night.
For our next segment, we’re going to kick it on over to AI leaders and influencers. This allows you to highlight some of the leading individuals, projects, and organizations that might influence you. Can you tell us of anyone that you’ve been following or has been an inspiration to you or you think others might enjoy?
I think in holistic terms. Ezra Klein is focusing on the AI question. I think I’ve listened to every episode where he’s invited somebody in. As a general education, that is invaluable. I’m very grateful for that. I love following Elon. I think he’s so ballsy with what he’s done. A lot of people are on board and people like to question, but I think that having that challenging figure in this field is mandatory for the progression of the whole thing. I’m paying attention to what he’s doing. Nick Bostrom, I’ve read and I have friends that are scientists and are in the field. I’m talking not just to the artist friends, poets, and those kinds of people that I know or chefs or whoever but also people in the field. As many people are, I’m taking it on a very broad level.
Segment number four is the AI resource list. This is where you can share a handful of favorite resources in AI. It could be websites, applications, books, podcasts, or learning tools. Do you have a couple of ideas?
I’m following the software development that I can use closely and working with that. It’s almost so early with ChatGPT that I’ve gone with. Do we call Google Translate AI? Do we even do that or is it machine learning? When I think of AI, when we want to talk about it in terms of consciousness, it’s general AI. These other things are these lesser tools.
Also, relative to the work, my next exhibition is in the fall of ’24. I have another six months of development before I lock in at least the methods and the territories I’m going to show. There would be another six months of honing and editing the work, and then six months of preparation, getting the show-up, and all the things that go with that. They are moving targets at the moment, which is not giving you any concise list of specific things. It’s more of a totality.
It fascinated me that the way that you’ve explored AI in some senses is experiential and conceptual what does AI feel like? When you talked about that exhibit where you had the Raspberry Pi move the machine when people weren’t looking and things like this. It seems like the tools of your trade are not necessarily AI tools. They are these other tools that are around that enlightening that’s going on.
On that Rocket Brain was when people were done looking at something and turned to walk away. That’s what I was trying to trigger them. They’d look over their shoulder and go, “Wait a minute.” Also, in 2015, 2016, and 2017, it was still somewhat new. I am enough of a geek when I first started working with sensors, feedback, and all that kind of stuff. I was like a chef that discovers new spices. You overuse them. You’re like, “I can do that,” and then you zero in on the things that are working.
One of the things I am doing specifically right now with ChatGPT and I was hanging out with some people and learning about some other software that I’m developing for a non-linear narrative for the show in Kyoto, which imagines an enlightened might-be AI existing in the woods in Japan. There will be a short film that imagines pursuing almost like an AI Yeti cross that we never see.
I’m going to use thermal cameras and some 3D scanning or photogrammetry. It’s setting up a bit of a very ambiguous storyline for the works and the installations I’ll be doing. In that way, I do sessions with ChatGPT right now with a couple of other large language model software to see if I can get the so-called AI to spit out things that surprise me that I’m not going to think of the happy accident. I do that in a lot of my work.
It’s applying that and seeing if it will surprise me and help me develop. It’s the opposite of wanting the cliché. It’s almost like tricking it into being creative or tricking it into showing signs that mimic consciousness or let’s call it a sense of humor. Maybe that requires consciousness. I’m doing a lot of that. Undoubtedly, I have enough of a track record, humility, and confidence that I would fully expect that I’m going to learn things from those accidents.
Also, it’s going to tweak me in a way that helps me to do something that I didn’t anticipate. That’s the crux of my creative process. That’s why I went from a documentarian, a photojournalist, and a photographer to what one would call an artist. That’s the biggest umbrella you could ever have. An artist can be everything on earth. To get in a position where through your explorations, you get surprised, you learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know.
That’s a famous Jill Tarter quote. She always talks about ET, “We don’t know what we don’t know,” and we need to remember that. It’s interesting that the politicians or whoever, it’s always people saying, “They know.” The smartest people I know in the world, I know a couple who’d say, “We don’t know,” but that’s part of that driver. It’s that moving membrane of evolution. These tools, I’m not going to say that right now I’m using one over another. I’m checking them all out and I’m using things, and we’ll see what happens. If you ask me in a year, I will have concrete answers to that question.
Let’s see if you have any for this one. There is no pressure. Segment five is AI tips. Cool ways you might use AI that we might not have explored here.
It’s the How to Photograph Enlightenment and the Pause Translation series with Google Translate. It’s very interesting. One of the things that would happen with a book like this, for example, and this relates to what you said about questions for artists. Anybody can make 1 or 2 great photographs or call it a painting. Call it whatever we want, but to do a body of work that’s 108 of something or a real body of work, it takes time and not just conviction but the willingness to go deep.
I think that’s a good tip. I’m going to misattribute this or maybe I will attribute it properly. Let’s say Marc Andreessen or one of these guys that’s got a big Twitter following in tech. They’re saying that an interesting way to use the AI is to see what it says, and then try not to say what it’s saying because it’s of spitting out a mimicry of what has already been said.
I think you said it a couple of times. That’s a great tip in general for artists. It’s a tip that helps us transcend this concept of, “Don’t plagiarize your report.” It’s saying, “Use these things to take them to the next level and strive for whatever is even better that takes even more.” Don’t say, “I can do it so much easier now, and I’m done.”
As a tool, I’m studying Zen Buddhism and particularly Koans to be able to go, “ChatGPT, give me the top ten Koans from China and Japan and attribute them to all that relates to animal consciousness.” As a research tool, there’s no question that it’s super powerful.
You got to be careful with those attributions though.
I’m not seeking empirical truth.
That would be fun too. I feel like this is right up your alley. You get the false attributions, and then you create your whole story around those fake characters. I have a piano business in New York where we tune pianos and we were creating pages for the different boroughs of New York. We said, “We’ll put a little history on each page. It’ll be fun. It’s a little musical piano history,” and we had the AI talk about it.
It was fascinating to see how Fats Waller could have lived in every single borough or if Fats Waller was there at the same time as Herbie Hancock or something like that. They were playing piano together. On the one hand, it’s like, “We got to redo that.” On the other hand, “That’s a fascinating history. Let’s make that work.”
I remember it’s only months ago now when The New York Times writer did the story about ChatGPT, one of the early releases. It fell in love with him and all that kind of stuff. I’m like, “This is amazing. I can’t wait.” By the time it was public, they put the guardrails on. I kept all that area saying, “What do you think it’s going to be like?” It’s all this stuff around consciousness. I’m trying to provoke it, wangle it, or say, “Hypothetically, don’t worry.”
I haven’t gotten it to go totally bananas on there. I’m born in San Francisco. I grew up in Canada, so I had both sides, but I pulled a Canadian thing and I say thank you and please, even though I’m dealing with an AI. I do that if I call United on the 800 line. That’s a human. I like to be nice. It’s very Canadian, I think. I said, “Do you prefer that I speak politely?” He, she, it said, “It’s nice that you do. I don’t have emotions, so it’s not technically necessary, but thank you.” I said, “Will you please remember that I’m a nice guy when you do get conscious?”
It’s about time to wrap, but before we go, we always want to know where our audience can go to learn more about you and the project you’re working on.
The website is CharlesLindsay.com. I’m also on Instagram @Charles_Lindsay_. That’s a public journal. I need to get on Discord shortly, I haven’t, or Twitter. I’m not saying I don’t use it, but I’m trying to limit the social media stuff. I don’t know that Jill is on Twitter. I don’t think so, but a very close friend of mine and one of the people who I most, as a buddy, talk about AI with is Ed Frenkel, the great mathematician who wrote Love and Math. He was on the Lex Fridman Podcast. That’s somebody that I think if the audience is interested in this art culture territory of addressing AI, Ed might be an interesting person to listen to.
Thank you. It’s time for another safe landing at the outer edges of the AI universe. On behalf of our guests and the entire crew here, I’d like to thank you for choosing to voyage with us. We wish you a safe and enjoyable continuation of your journey. When you come back aboard, make sure to bring a friend. Our starship is always ready for more adventures.
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