Pins, Memorylessness, and Bags of Words: Visualizing “A.I.” and Its Histories [2021]

Documentary, informational, and interactive in its aims, this project reflects on the 2020-2021 Histories of Artificial Intelligence Mellon Seminar at the University of Cambridge to imagine possibilities for concretely depicting the complex set of technologies, philosophies, and ideologies constituting “artificial intelligence” and its histories.  Often perceived by the general public as an incomprehensible “black box” and frequently defined by AI researchers as a “moving target,” “AI,” as late-capitalist “non-object” or set of phenomena, poses some unique challenges to those asked to define and explain “it,” its applications, and its genealogies.  And yet, having spent the last year discussing “AI” and its histories, the participants from the HOAI seminar have developed some uniquely diachronic and synthetic insights into the phenomena currently referred to as “A.I.”.  

Pins, Memorylessness, and Bags of Words
(IBM/Bell Labs/Descartes/Babbage/Baudot/Helmholtz/Markov/Hartley/Turing/Google AI Edition)
(Digital Print, 2021)
© johannah rodgers

The title of the project refers to the importance of things both abstract and concrete to “A.I.” and its histories and calls attention to the discursive complexities that are themselves part of “A.I.”: “Pins” functions at once as metonym, artifact, and symbol for the political and economic philosophies informing “A.I.”; “Memorylessness,” a technical term from the history of statistics, may be in itself a useful one for describing the frequently paradoxical characteristics of “A.I.” as a discursive and cultural object; and “Bag(s) of Words,” a concept and technique borrowed from natural language processing and machine learning, is deployed metaphorically to describe “A.I.’s” dependence on verbal language for its operations, as well as literally to collect verbal language used at discrete points in time to describe the possibilities and realities of “A.I.”.

The project is made up of a series of fictional “x-ray” images purported to be from the recently declassified medical history file of Artificial Intelligence. Consisting of collections of digital and actual objects and texts presented as digital and print based collages, the images can be used to explore the many different phenomena related to the histories of Artificial Intelligence and as a way to begin discussing in more concrete and tangible terms a set of technologies that often portray themselves as “unimaginable.”