An AI rendering from Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos
Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos by Iris Qu COURTESY IRIS QU

5 Ground-Breaking Conceptual Projects Address the Complex Problems of Our Time

Driving the Human, a three-day festival in Berlin proposes far out ideas for eco-social renewal.

What if we really listened to the social and economic ideas of those with Down Syndrome? What if AI could be taught to help solve our environmental problems?

From war and poverty to climate change, humanity faces crippling issues daily, and Driving the Human: 21 Visions for Eco-social Renewal, a three-day festival held October 15 to 17 at Berlin’s arts center Radialsystem, tackled them head-on. Part of the international mentorship program “Forecast,” the event featured innovative concepts intended to spark global dialogue. The ideas were expressed in the form of installations, performances, and video presentations, which combined art and science.

“Driving the Human seeks to support initiatives between humans and non-humans that imagine other ways for living and inhabiting this planet at a variety of scales,” says Freo Majer, the artistic director of the festival, which is jointly led by four partner institutions: acatech—National Academy of Science and Engineering, Forecast, the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design,  and ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.

In response to an open call for ideas, more than 1,000 applications from 99 countries were received, with 21 finalists (teams and individuals) selected for a grant program. Seven of the finalists will be chosen for further development in the three-year-long program that concludes in 2023. Here are five of our favorites.

Exhibition seminar
Vienne Chan and Katja Meier’s project investigates how insights from people with Down Syndrome might help tackle problems like global injustuce and insecurity. COURTESY CAMILLE BLAKE

1. Down to the Economy by Vienne Chan and Katja Meier

What would our societies and economies look like if they were designed by people with Down Syndrome? Vienne Chan and Katja Meier make the case that the current particular kind of intelligence defining society leads to global injustice and insecurity. “The idea is to take the time and try to learn to listen to and actually work with ideas from people with Down Syndrome,” says Chan. “For example, we were talking about where to house refugees and one of the participants said, ‘hotels and shops.’ And actually, if you look at real estate and finance trends, there is massive financial instability risk in commercial real estate because of the growth of online commerce.”

2. Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos by Iris Qu

Intelligent entities aim to avoid destruction, argues Iris Qu in her project “Do AIs Dream of Climate Chaos.” “Because AI relies on hardware infrastructure that is global and climate-sensitive, you’d think that once it learns about climate change, it would want to do something about it,” she says. With a screen-based installation, she presents an artificial intelligence agent processing environmental chaos through a collection of some 270,000 climate-related articles. Upon receiving the data, the self-aware AI develops the instinct to understand and survive.

An image of Lichen
Server Farm proposes bio-based computation as a solution to the ecological costs of the internet. COURTESY JAMES BRIDLE

3. Server Farm by James Bridle

“Computation as currently constructed is both a disaster for the planet and a disaster for society,” says James Bridle, noting both environmental and social media consequences. With Server Farm he proposes to build a computer out of biological systems such as plants, microbes, and fungus—which recent scientific research shows are capable of computation. The new ‘server’ would forgo biological damage and offer a new, and perhaps better way of processing information. “It’s very clear that both our contemporary human and machine ways of thinking are really insufficient in figuring out the problems of the present,” he continues. “So, we need to ask everybody on the planet for help, which includes all the non-humans as well.”

Dissuasion engine interface
The Dissuasion Engine hopes to discourage online shoppers from buying things they don’t need. COURTESY CHRIS SALTER, ERIK ADIGARD, ALEXANDRE QUESSY

4. Dissuasion Engine by Chris Salter, Erik Adigard, and Alexandre Quessy

A decision to buy something online is influenced by your needs, desires, and also mathematics, argues Chris Salter, one of the three minds behind “Dissuasion Engine,” a browser-based plugin that discourages shopping in order to reduce consumption and environmental impact. Without collecting personal data and based on the idea that mass change is only created by a mass initiative, the plug-in “throws a wrench in the consumption process so you might actually not press the buy button,” Salter explains. With each potential purchase, the plug-in sends “information about the social costs, friends discouraged by the product, and the environmental price, such as the amount of water consumed and labor practices.”

A rendering of a reindeer and oil infrastructure from a video game
A rendering of a reindeer alongside petroleum extraction infrastructure in Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North, a game that explores the past and future of the arctic. COURTESY ANDRA POP-JURJ AND LENA GEERTS DANAU

5. Monsters and Ghosts of the Far North: Towards an Inclusive Cartography by Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau

Andra Pop-Jurj and Lena Geerts Danau employ the gaming genre with the aim to alter perspective and instigate positive change. In the form of a melting iceberg floating within an Arctic terrain accurately constructed based on files of the Arctic Ocean, a player enters an interactive experience with nonhuman agents such as a methanobacteria, an Arctic tern, an Arctic cod, or a reindeer.

“In the Arctic, geopolitical conflicts are currently unfolding, with territorial claims due to the melting ice, more shipping route access, and extractivism. Our game bridges these multiple fields,” Pop-Jurj states. “Ideally we’d like to include even more real environmental data to turn it into a collaborative practice with scientists and other experts in order to visualize the kind of spatial implications of all these decisions politicians are making from far away.”

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]