Art & Design Faculty Who Use AI See Both Positives and Negatives of the Technology

Ecology of Worries Image by Aram Boghosian
An "Ecology of Worries" animation is projected on the side of a building in Boston’s Financial District during Illuminus, 2019.

By Brooke Coupal

Creatures unlike anything ever seen before appeared on the side of buildings in Boston’s Financial District with something to say.

“I’m worried about my future,” stated a bug-eyed critter. Nearby, a much larger critter with a mouth above its two eyes disclosed, “I’m worried that I will never leave.”

The artist duo Caitlin & Misha used artificial intelligence (AI) to create the creatures’ speech for their animation series “Ecology of Worries,” which has been projected on buildings during art festivals in Boston and Taos, New Mexico.

“We really liked the idea of people stumbling across these critters the same way you stumble across worries,” says Caitlin Foley, a visiting faculty lecturer for the Department of Art & Design.

Foley has been collaborating with Art & Design Assoc. Prof. Misha Rabinovich for about a decade, and together, they push the boundaries of their art by testing out different tools and processes. The pair has incorporated AI in their most recent projects, which Foley discussed at a recent Kennedy College of Sciences Conversation Starter event that explored the technology’s benefits and drawbacks.

“We are very interested in art and technology, and AI is becoming such a dominant part of what technology is now,” Foley says.

For “Ecology of Worries,” Foley and Rabinovich trained machine learning algorithms on worries that they’ve been collecting from people since 2016, using an online form. The machine learning algorithms then produced “synthetic worries,” which Foley and Rabinovich attached to critters that they illustrated using insects and plants for inspiration. The artists used text-to-speech AI to create voices for the critters, as well as Adobe Sensei, another AI tool, to produce mouth shapes for each critter so they would mouth the words appropriately.

Ecology of Worries artists Image by Ed Brennen/Brent Brafford
Art & Design faculty members Caitlin Foley, left, and Misha Rabinovich, right, are the artists who created "Ecology of Worries."

“When you contribute a worry to this, and then you hear this creature talking, it’s not exactly your words,” Rabinovich says. “It is reflective of your worries filtered through this communal worry pool.”

The artists found humor in their project, as the AI trained on actual worries sometimes failed to form discernible words and instead sounded “like a baby trying to talk.” However, as AI continues to rapidly advance, so has the critters’ ability to voice real worries.

“What the critters are saying is becoming less and less funny,” Rabinovich says.

The artists see “Ecology of Worries” as an avenue to help people process their worries, but also note that listening to machine-generated worries could cause new anxieties.

“That brings us to the question, should we teach a machine to worry for us?” Foley asks. “What is our relationship with AI, and how can it impact our feelings and thoughts?”

The Relationship Between AI and Art

As with “Ecology of Worries,” AI can be used in art to enhance a project. It also provides valuable resources to artists who do not have the budget to realize their visions.

“Early-career artists could use AI to generate a film based on a script they wrote, or produce a virtual world based on their drawings,” Rabinovich says. “It could potentially democratize the creation of artwork.”

But AI also comes with plenty of concerns in the art world.

With the capabilities of AI evolving rapidly, some artists fear the technology could take over the creative process – and their livelihood.

“People aren’t going to want to pay artists to create art when they can just have AI do it,” Rabinovich says.

AI software that generates images often uses the existing work of artists; however, these artists are typically not compensated.

“Most people who have created open AI platforms did not consider the need to compensate or give recognition to the artists who have done work that their platform is being trained on,” Foley says.

Foley and Rabinovich say it’s necessary for everyone, from makers to consumers, to deeply reflect on the uses and impact of AI, while acknowledging that this can be difficult given AI’s constant advancements. They add that their project “Ecology of Worries” and events like the Kennedy College of Sciences Conversation Starter on Artificial Intelligence help create spaces for reflection.

“AI is out there. It’s a part of our culture, and to use it in a way that’s educated is tough. But if we don’t use it at all, we don’t get to inform how it becomes part of our world,” says Foley, who plans on using AI in her next project with Rabinovich. “It’s a tricky space.”