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This Disembodied Robotic Mouth Is Reciting Algorithmically Generated Prayers

"The Prayer" is currently singing at a museum in Paris.

by Marina Wang
Mar 18 2020, 12:00pm

Image: Diemut Strebe

New to the colorful exhibit halls of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a robotized silicon nose and mouth spouts AI-generated prayers in a mechanical voice. The syntax is correct, but the mish-mash of words fail to form a cogent narrative.

“Sometimes it comes up with things that are quite funny,” giggled Diemut Strebe, the artist who created the art piece.

The artwork, called The Prayer, is powered by an algorithm that draws from religious texts and prayers from around the world. Strebe aims to highlight philosophical themes about the ever-increasing pervasiveness of AI and how that can affect our relationship with the unknown.

One of her most famous previous pieces involved working with scientists to regrow Van Gogh’s missing ear, and in another piece she had a diamond coated with the darkest material ever created.

For the The Prayer , Strebe worked with a team from MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence lab that compiled religious texts and prayers from around the world. These texts and prayers were used as training data for a complex language processing model from OpenAI, and after some fine-tuning, the program could independently generate its own prayers. This text generation was then combined with a text-to-speech program that borrowed the voice of Amazon’s Kendra, and synchronized it with a robotic mouth and nose.

“Some outputs are very bizarre, and they sometimes get stuck in funny loops,” said Enrico Santus, a data scientist who helped develop the artwork. “We don't know what The Prayer will say to the people at the Centre Pompidou, but we hope they enjoy it and will stimulate their thoughts.”

Some of the thoughts Strebe hopes to stimulate revolve around the increasing power and ubiquity of AI. Inherent to neural networks, however, is a “black box” where programmers don’t know exactly how an AI is getting a particular result.

“The Enlightenment gave us the slogan ‘Dare to know,’ and that’s really the biggest privilege we have,” said Strebe.“Science gave us freedom to understand the world and to control it, and now we’re getting to the next level where technology could slip out of our hands.”

But Strebe also calls into question the limitations of AI. She asks if at any point an AI would be capable of having one of the most uniquely human experiences—a divine epiphany.

Asking this is getting bogged down in the philosophical quagmire of what is a consciousness, do you need this to experience the supernatural, and would it be possible for future AIs to do this—but that, of course, is the point of the artwork.

The Prayer will be on display at the Centre Pompidou from 26 February - 20 April 2020, followed by travelling to galleries in the United States and around the world.

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