Somerset House Studios

SUBSTRAND: A Profile of Libby Heaney

22 Feb 2019

With a chatbot trained on the Life in the UK citizenship test recently released, Somerset House Studios resident Libby Heaney wants to answer the question: how can we create an ethical framework for AI and quantum computing before it’s too late?

The advent of email, instant messaging, and the Internet was as momentous as the invention of telegraphy and the telephone before it. It simultaneously magicked others’ bodies into superfluity, and brought their opinions, thoughts, and routines closer than ever. The growth in the 1990s of forums, personal websites or blogs, and peer-to-peer networking services meant everyday exchanges between regular people happened every day: weekend plans, frustrations, and photographs of meals were all broadcast like a pixelated cablegram. Utopian visions from every political position coalesced around the Internet. It would ring in a new economy, a new era of information exchange. Famously, according to John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, it would banish the concepts of ownership, status, identity, borders, and consumption. It was an anonymous and immaterial space, boundless and brimming over with possibility.

20-odd years on, the Internet has departed from such lofty expectations: Internet monoliths like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have cast special interest forums, activists’ networks, and the weird wide web into the shadows. Moreover, post-Cambridge Analytica revelations have proved that the Internet and its associated technologies aren’t apolitical realms encased hermetically in the sleek architecture of your phone, computer, or tablet but rather things that are dramatically affected by the a contemporary politics of state surveillance, corporate data mining, and diminishing personal privacy.

Now, with many companies — Google, Facebook, and Amazon amongst their number — incorporating AI divisions into their businesses, and the prospect of quantum computing in sight, artist Libby Heaney wants her art to interrupt the pace of things.

Britbot at CogX 2018, Photo: Luba Elliot

The project she is working on at Somerset House Studios, Britbot, is an artwork and chatbot exploring ‘British’ identity. Trained on the Life in the UK citizenship handbook, the chatbot interacts with people either using IM style text or through the user’s headphones and webcam. It asks the user about their age, gender, feelings about the concept of Britishness, ethnicity, and education. Her hope is that being faced with these questions will implicate users in discussions of national identity and how these discussions are intricately bound up with race, ethnicity, gender, education, and geography.

Britbot is not the first chatbot she’s made. In 2016 Heaney made Lady Chatterley’s Tinderbot, an interactive touch screen artwork comprising conversations between an AI Tinderbot posing as characters from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other Tinder users. Like Lady Chatterly’s Tinderbot, which when exhibited featured a book which presented an edited data set of around 300 conversations and aimed to deconstruct romantic and ethical codes, Heaney is creating a dataset from the Life in the UK citizenship book.

Integrated Quantum Photonics Chip, Photo: Silverstone

The Life in the UK test was brought in by then-Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett in the early 2000s. Billed at its introduction as a way to better understand the pragmatics of living in the UK — how to pay a bill, how to use the NHS — the test has been shaped by whichever government is administering it. For example, in 2013 under the coalition government, the test began a more explicitly rightward tilt asking questions about ‘British Values’ and the UK’s ‘long and illustrious history’.

Heaney is going back through the book and deconstructing it too. A few months ago she wrote down the names of everyone mentioned, and now she’s analysing the gender (there are 37 women and six of them were Henry the VIII’s wives) and educational background of those included, as well as the locations mentioned. Her suspicion is that all the places mentioned are going to create a strange, archaic, and deeply conservative model of the British landscape: a place replete with countryside houses and grand old buildings and completely devoid of post-war architecture or social housing.

As with Facebook, when you speak to Britbot it solicits data from you. How it uses that data, though, is very different. Current algorithms limit us by looping us back to the familiar, back into somewhere ‘safe’, something expected. Rather than looping you back into your own bubble where people, products, and opinions echoing your own are brought closer to you, Britbot will learn from each of its users. As it learns it will formulate new responses with that data: causing users to come up with views that might grate or that users might not have considered.

From Hito Seteryl, whose work exposes the ties between the market and the military to Forensic Architecture’s exposing of state violence through investigations into crimes against humanity and nature, many contemporary artists have tasked themselves with lifting the veil of convenience provided by smartphones, social media, and AI to expose the machinations of the state, the centralisation of the internet, and covert technological advancements.

Likewise, Libby Heaney seeks to find the cracks in the fields of AI and quantum computing. Her work from Lady Chatterly’s Tinderbot, to Nibbles, an artwork that disappears when you look at it is wide ranging, but the question that runs through all of it is: what would it look like if art were able to interrupt the pace of technology to pose questions about its ethics?


Words by Cornelia Prior for Somerset House Studios