Artificial intelligence gives nature a voice

Dear mr President,
We are melting. It hurts.
We are sad. We are dying.
Please do not forget us.
Your friend,
Ice cap.

On November 19, 2021, Peter van der Putten and Jeroen van der Most will speak at the Thinking Planet event of NEMO Kennislink. Van der Putten: “Technology can hold up a mirror to us of who we are. With AI, we can push the boundaries and speculate about the future.”

Peter van der Putten

The image and sound of a gigantic melting ice cap give these words even more power in the artwork by Peter van der Putten and Jeroen van der Most. This letter was written by artificial intelligence, the specialty of Van der Putten, who works at the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science at Leiden University. He is one of the speakers during the Thinking Planet Festival, which NEMO Kennislink is organizing. We spoke to him about this special project, titled Letters from Nature.

In Letters from Nature science and art go hand in hand. How did that come about?

“Jeroen and I both already worked at the intersection of art and science; that’s how we met. As an artist, Jeroen works a lot with artificial intelligence (AI). I am an AI researcher, but for me the division between art and science is not that strict. The Media Technology master’s program, where I teach, is also a combination of art science and technology. For example, in a course I taught before, we always ended the lecture series with an exhibition. We are emphatically looking for other forms of scientific output. That can also be an interactive installation.”

“I especially see similarities between artists and scientists: both try to look at the world in different ways by asking new questions, and both go through a creative process of testing and experimenting before reaching their final product. Outsiders only see that last part: with the scientist you see a boring publication, with the artist an object that is brimming with creativity. But it arises in the same way.”

“By the way, this project is not a university project, but a personal project that got off the ground last summer. Jeroen wondered how you can use such cold technology as AI to bridge the gap between humans and nature. There is a nice tension in that: you use technology to bring people closer to nature, while it has actually removed us from it in the first place. That’s how we came up with the idea of Letters from Nature: Mother Nature has no voice, so let’s use AI to give nature that voice.”

Obelisk with letters in Lakenhal Leiden.

Can artificial intelligence write such letters all by itself?

“As a researcher, I have access to GTP3, a computer model based on artificial intelligence that can generate text. The model is trained with texts from almost the entire internet, so very advanced. In a nutshell, the model predicts new letters and words time and again on the basis of letters and words that have been given. To generate text, the model only needs a small amount of input. The above letter was the result of the simple command: AI, write a letter from a melting ice cap to the president.

“We make a selection ourselves from the letters generated by the computer model; we choose the most beautiful. Sometimes we also extract sentences, but never words or half sentences. That is the restriction we have imposed on ourselves. Sometimes there are sentences that are not quite right, but that’s fun. People are going to assign meaning to that themselves.”

“In principle, the output of the computer model is infinite. We also show that in our contribution to the exhibition If things grow wrong in the Cloth Hall in Leiden. The letters are mounted there on a four-meter high obelisk. It symbolizes an endless stream of letters. This obelisk fits our project well, because it is both natural and artificial: an obelisk is shaped like a rock crystal and at the same time, Egyptians and Romans used it to write whole stories. You also have science fiction films in which an obelisk descends with messages from aliens.”

Do you want with Letters from Nature draw attention to environmental issues in a positive way?

“Yes, but above all in a creative way. Somehow this is an activist work, but there are several layers to it. On the one hand, it’s something that everyone immediately understands, because as children we think it’s quite normal that rivers and trees can speak – those kinds of stories have been told by people for tens of thousands of years around campfires. In addition, we want the mind also wanders a bit. We want to make people think. How can inanimate objects talk? What does it mean to be closer to nature? How does technology help nature?”

“We also choose different angles: businesslike, poetic, complaining, asking for help and protesting letters, but also outright threatening letters and thank you notes. For example, from the Sahara, which is very happy with global warming. In this way we want to stimulate the imagination and let everyone think about climate change in their own way.”

Thinking Planet: from ego to eco can be attended free of charge in De Studio van NEMO on Friday 19 November 2021 from 20:00 to 22:15. The full program and registration form can be found on this page

Source: Kennislink by

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