My AI animated video chat with strangers gave me hope


In 2017, artists and directors Lauren Lee McCarthy, Grace Lee and Tony Patrick were commissioned to imagine the “future of work” for a residency at the University of Southern California. As part of a 3-month process of exploring ideas for improving Los Angeles, the trio had to imagine what 2020 would look like. They predicted that the election year would bring, among other things, “unrest. massive civilians, “” a second civil war “and” a huge dump of data, “Lee said during a panel. at Sundance 2021. “We called it the 2020 Breakdown.”

The residency brought the trio together as they “tried to figure out what building the hell world is like,” Patrick said. This led to the creation of Beyond Failure (BTB) – an interactive browser-based experience that premiered on January 30 at Sundance.

In BTB, you sign up for a date to have an AI-powered conversation with six to eight people to imagine a better world. The experiment is currently not open to everyone, but McCarthy told Engadget that while an exact timeline is still being worked out, “we plan to make it available to the public.”

You don’t need to show your face, although it is recommended. After a brief video recapping the horrors of 2020, I hit enter and found myself in a Zoom-ish room with six other people who had already gotten to know each other. One of them asked me to introduce myself, and after a few more minutes of joking around, words appeared on the screen as a robotic voice greeted us. The AI ​​moderator introduced himself as Serenity and explained some of the features available.

Beyond the breakdown

A pause button at the bottom of the screen plays a 20-second video clip featuring tall green trees and the sounds of singing birds and is intended to help users calm down if things heat up. He also plays the entire video chat and everyone has to take a break. A chat button on the right opened a window for us to interact via text with Serenity and other participants. There were also options to turn off our microphones and cameras. Serenity told us to mute when we weren’t talking (which I was grateful for as the feedback from the mics of seven people was maddening).

After the introduction, Serenity asked everyone, “What do you reflect now?” It was a confusing question to begin with, but one of my fellow participants rephrased it for us. He hypothesized that this meant what we were thinking and reflecting on, and we all responded based on this interpretation. At this point, the experience may seem painfully familiar and bordering on unnecessary.

But Serenity went on to ask some really thought-provoking questions, like what we’d like to see more of in 2050 or what we’d like not to talk about that year. Then he kept pushing, asking what kinds of new jobs should be created to facilitate some of the stated values ​​of our group and the world we wanted to create. The questions also differ slightly from session to session, according to McCarthy. She said that “each session follows an arc and most of the questions are the same, but there is also variation in the response to the discussion and the flow of the group.”

Beyond the blackout at Sundance 2021

Beyond the breakdown

Beyond the breakdown It’s not just about introspection and imagining the future. Its main focus is conversation and dialogue – if not, why did you answer these questions with a group of strangers? Whenever it seemed like everyone hadn’t responded, Serenity asked if anyone had more to add.

Learning from others in conversation was what made the experience enlightening and hopeful. When Serenity asked where we thought people would call home in 2050, my colleagues’ responses surprised me. I was thinking of simpler answers like “Earth” for example, but others spoke of common living spaces. Some questions were quite vague, however, such as “What is care in this world”, and some in my group chose to interpret them as health care, while others interpreted this as “community care. “.

Yet seeing how people interpreted and answered questions was part of learning from various perspectives. As Lee put it, the sessions offer “an opportunity to create something rather than just ingest it”. If I had only spoken with Serenity, I would have missed the collaborative aspect.

But of course the quality of your BTB the experience depends on the people you interact with. My session was filled with a somewhat biased and self-selected sample – Sundance attendees who had access to a computer and spoke English. This excludes people from different socio-economic backgrounds or other nationalities who did not speak English. And while I applaud BTB Built-in accessibility features like live captioning and text-based support, there’s still a lot to consider.

Beyond the blackout at Sundance 2021

Beyond the breakdown

That said, the fact that I speak with smart, like-minded people was a big part of the reasons I enjoyed BTB. It gave me hope that the world is not filled with angry people who shut down rational talk, and that there are people determined to build a better future through empathy, sympathy, and listening to others. . But I can imagine how my experience would have been completely different if it had been filled with people who disagree on fundamental issues. Of course, there’s always the Pause button to cool things down, and anyone who signs up for a session BTB will most likely be open-minded and pleasant to begin with. But I’m not sure that 20 seconds would be enough to calm a really heated argument.

Patrick answered one of the questions he wanted BTB the answer was, “Is it possible for a navigator to help us with community and community care?” McCarthy added, “What if the browser or the video chat experience itself could walk you through this process, and what if we start to bring AI into it?”

I didn’t see Serenity step in to calm a sticky situation because my classmates were all respectful and pleasant. Looking back, I wish someone in my group had at least pretended to be warming up to see how Serenity handled things. I like the idea of ​​a neutral AI moderator leading the conversations, as it might seem more objective to participants regardless of their ideological differences. But I believe that Beyond the breakdown has an inherent limitation: scope. People with whom we need to have open-minded and open-hearted conversations in safe spaces may not be likely or willing to sign up for such a discussion. What it offers those of us who wish to speak with people around the world is a silver lining as we shed the debris of 2020 and move on into the rest of the decade.

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