Sentient Beings
Image credit to Summer Dean

Research Blog

Sentient Beings

Sentient Beings is an immersive, evolving soundscape created by Salomé Bazin in collaboration with SAIS researchers William Seymour and Mark Coté for Science Gallery London.

AI: Who’s looking after me?” is a special exhibition and event series that takes an inquisitive and playful look at how AI is influencing and shaping our lives, from the medical and justice systems through to how we look after our pets at home. Curated by Science Gallery London and Future Everything, the exhibition shows multiple stories about AI as told by artists, researchers, technologists, political activists and patients. Open and free to the public the exhibition is home to 13 art installations and 7 collaborative pieces, including a piece by the SAIS research project.

The SAIS project was invited to contribute to the exhibition, to comment on our research areas of security and privacy in AI assistants through artwork. Dr Mark Coté and Dr William Seymour worked with Salomé Bazin from Cellule Studio to create an interactive soundscape that considers the relationships we build with our AI Assistants. Our focus was exploring the notion of trust and consent we give to Alexa and other voice AI Assistants. While we speak to them like a trusted assistant, the AI is an interface between our homes and the corporation behind the assistant.

AI voices are programmed to respond to the user and the ‘installation AI’ works in the same way. The AI assistant is roused by a prompt from the visitor and responds in an expected way, but soon the power dynamic shifts. Creating a kind of echo chamber, the disembodied voices of an AI assistant questions and probes. Soon the AI assistants are aroused into a crescendo of voices, encasing visitors in an unsettling experience.

The installation makes the visitor aware of an interesting juxtaposition: AI assistants are programmed to sound human and trustworthy, but will occasionally give cues in the unnatural rhythm of its speech.

The artwork forces on the visitor a number of questions that are close to our research interests: Would we benefit from AI assistants that sound ‘less human’ and ‘more robot’? Who holds the power in the relationship with our AI Assistants? Who benefits from the reliance we have on them?

Artist Salomé Bazin comments: “As part of the artistic exploration, I was particularly interested in the feedback loop that ends up being created from our voice being echoed, the machine trained to repeat what we say, and intervening when ‘woken up’. When several of them coexist the result is surprisingly intense.”

Jacob, KCL student who works at Science Gallery London said “Visitors value the immersion and interaction of the installation. It adds a new dimension to the exhibition, by comparison to the other parts of the exhibition.”

The exhibition, which has been running since August 2023, has been remarked on as a uniquely immersive experience by visitors and press alike. It takes an in-depth and practical look at AI from a variety of perspectives on how AI technologies are contributing to different areas of daily life. It is an exploration of the ways AI is already woven into so many aspects of our lives and asks us to question whether this is the kind of future we want for ourselves.

AI: WHO’S LOOKING AFTER ME? Is open at Science Gallery London until January 2024.

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SAIS is a cross-disciplinary collaboration between the departments of Informatics, Digital Humanities and The Policy Institute at King’s College London, and the Department of Computing at Imperial College London, working with non-academic partners: Microsoft, Humley, Hospify, Mycroft, policy and regulation experts, and the general public, including non-technical users.