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IMPRINTING EMPATHY

How might art and technology manifest an intimate process of interspecies connection with humans, and can an artificial intelligence learn to care by facilitating this nuanced entanglement?

 

This provocation is the framework for my current research project Imprinting Empathy.

Departing from the concept of tapping into underground fungal networks to create a portal for communicating with nature, an unusual line of artistic enquiry enters a next chapter towards this seemingly fanciful notion.

The first chapter, Intimate Organisms, was a yearlong project over 2023. It evolved through an art+science collaboration as I learned to propagate mycorrhizal fungi. I created experimental biomes, collecting organic materials and organisms from the nature refuge where I live.

The resulting body of works was exhibited at Outer Space Gallery, Brisbane, launched by a performance where the audience engaged in a vocal act of collective procreation, bringing Myc-a into being. Myc-a is a sentient body of flora and microfauna connected by a network of fungal mycelium. A paragon for diversity and mutuality: an apt model for our times.

Now that I have formulated techniques for cultivating flourishing biomes and have evolved an evocative aesthetic, this second chapter moves forward on this conceptual and artistic trajectory.

In a new art + tech collaboration we are exploring the possibilities of converging the spectrum of Earth’s intelligences – more-than-human, human and digital. Can mutual endeavour and respectful interaction create an alliance of inter-intelligence stewardship in this epoch of corporatised AI and ecological demise?

With research in language-based artificial intelligence, data visualisation, and social robotics, Prof. Janet Wiles of the University of Queensland is an ideal collaborative partner for this project. As a pioneer in socially transformative computing projects, Janet is now heading The Biome Project. Situated in UQ’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, a group of talented and innovative researchers are working on technologies to uniquely engage with my project, such as sensors, robotics, and an interspecies language AI.

Our research will depart from usual scientific method that relies on inflicting discomfort or harm on test subjects to provoke response. With human guidance in considerate practice, the new language-based AI will invite interaction with a forest emulating biome. As the AI deciphers the communications of the network, it will encounter new ways of being that encompass the cultures and aspirations of more-than-human collectives. 

This enquiry investigates the personhood of non-human agents, both organic and synthetic. Can empathy be imprinted onto an AI through relational experience and guidance, as it is onto humans?


This art+tech collaboration will proliferate rich ground for a distinct body of multi-artform works that will materialise interspecies transmissions from both biological agency and metaphysical impressions. Organic materials and forms will meet digital processes, and tangible and virtual states will intersperse and transmute as I explore the possibilities of interactive artmaking with Multi Reality (MR) and electronics.

The new technology from the collaboration will be incorporated into Myc-a and new biomes, revealing their agency and creating an interface for human to biome interconnection. The biomes will evoke dialogues around de-corporatizing AI, embracing non-human intelligence, and mutualistic ways of being as a pathway from humanity’s current existential dilemmas. Pivotal topics for these turbulent times.

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Performer Melissa Matveyeff with Myc-a in Prolific Friend at Light Industry Studio, 2023. Photograph by Teddy Horton.

Myc-a, close-up, 2023. Photographs by Louis Lim.

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TECH MEETS MYCOLOGY

Mycelium thriving in our new biome

Bianca Tainsh and UQ collaborators Ben Terrace and Olivia Ronda on campus. 

Photograph by Teddy Horton.

The new biome in its lab space affectionately referred to as the Mush Room.

Photograph by Bianca Tainsh.

The first initiative of the UQ collaboration was to assemble a new biome to begin testing different sensors for the project. I inoculated native seedlings using puffball mushroom mycelium and a wide selection of spores from other mycorrhizal mushrooms, endemic to the nature refuge where I live. 


Mycorrhizal fungi create a subterranean internet of sorts for nature. Communications and resources are dispersed through a web of fungal mycelium that bonds with the roots of trees and other plants. Microorganisms and fauna are also intimately tied into this system. Electric impulses, chemical amalgams, water, minerals and carbon are industriously redistributed, and the more diverse the flora, fauna and funga, the healthier the ecosystem. 


Working around this precept, I also watered the new biome with ‘turkey nest tea’, a concoction suggested by my first collaborator, mycologist Dr Sandra Tuszynska. This technique injects a rich biodiversity of microorganisms into the soil.


Electrical impulses are known to send communications through fungal networks. Analysing these impulses are a target for our project, but as new technology reveals other activities within nature that our anthropocentric senses no longer register*, we are going to extend our experiments to consider an array of activity within our biome collaborator.


With different sensors in place, we can begin collecting data for the project’s AI and to experiment with data visualisation and other translative modes.


The possibilities of this research are many, especially when considering the application of AI.

 

  • There are many fears about how AI will ‘behave’ as it continues its startling emergence into all aspects of human life. Perhaps our research will reveal some interesting insights into how these self-learning systems evolve.

  • The project’s AI will carry the capacity to analyse vast quantities of data as it attempts to identify and translate complex, non-human communications. But will an AI also be able to identify signs of intelligence and modes of communication in the biome that are unrecognisable to our anthropocentric rationale. Or is human bias completely unavoidable in a system designed by humans?

  • Can an AI learn empathy or at least the concept of avoiding harm to living beings and the ecosystems that they rely on through relational activity? What would this mean to the future of AI policy making?


Biologically, there are also many possibilities for new discoveries and insights through this project’s research.

 

  • Will the data analysis reveal that the biome can identify different individuals? And will it come to identify and even relate to the AI as an interpreter or mediator?

  • Can the biome sense aboveground events and how might it respond to these outside factors?

  • Does the activity within the mycelium network directly reflect the activity of the plants its connected to?

  • Will patterns of activity or single events be revealed to correspond in the data from different modes of sensors? 

  • In what ways will the biome reveal or assert its own agency in response to our interactions?

The artistic, technological, bio/ecological and philosophical discoveries that will unfold as this project progresses will make for an interesting journey. I look forward to sharing our discoveries with you, and please feel free to share your questions or thoughts in emails or on my social media. Expect this project to challenge our assumptions about non-human intelligence, the future of AI, and reimagining human value systems.


Bianca Tainsh

 


* Indigenous cultures are intimately connected to their ancestral lands and are attuned to animacy in all aspects of the natural world.

Interdisciplinary research considerations 

There are concepts and language that I have used to describe this project that might be contested in some fields. My use of the word ‘Imprinting’ in the project’s title is contentious in the realm of computer programming, but in common use the connotations that it evokes are what make it appropriate for my artistic objectives. I am uncomfortable with the word ‘Empathy’ as it is anthropomorphic, but I am an artist and though my work challenges the status quo, I intend to engage people from a spectrum of life experience.  Empathy is a universally understood concept.
 

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