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Finding the Emotional Heart of AI

Finding the Emotional Heart of AI

Duncan Gough, Tech Lead at the V&A Museum, is trying to find the emotional heart of AI in a conversation dominated by doomsayers and zealots. We caught up with him to discuss Ara, his own AI creation, and his ideas on the future of intelligent technology.

Tell me about your role at the V&A

I’ve been here for about a year and a half. I come from the start-up world and the V&A were looking for that sort of attitude and personality in their next Tech Lead.

Museums push themselves to be technical and switched on to the latest thing. We have a large number of digital products and projects at the V&A and are increasingly thinking about those in terms of our digital estate. Inevitably, there are lots of projects that have been implemented and then left behind.

In a start-up, you run into a similar scenario. You’re thinking about all the things you could do and ultimately selecting a few to focus on. You make, test, improve, go live … or leave an idea behind because it doesn’t move you forward.

I’m keen to make my mark here by picking up those abandoned projects and opening up the API of various tools to the public, allowing people to take great technology into their own inventions.

What’s the most interesting application of AI you’ve seen recently?

At the Festival of Marketing, it was everywhere, which is amazing and worrying. My concern, and I talked about this at the Festival, is that AI right now is a broad church.

Things are called AI but are not. Voicemail is AI for missed phone calls, for example. A slack bot that can do your accounts is called AI. Google Home is a helpful service, but is that AI? Or is that machine learning?

Possibly the most powerful application of AI is self-parking cars. They are amazing! That is so much more intelligent than voicemail or a slack bot. But do we recognise that as a powerful application of AI?

Ara, an AI songbird that sings when she feels like singing, is amazing. Can you explain a bit more about how she came about and what she’s added to your life?


The name is a failed pun on Arduino (an open-source electronic prototyping platform that enables users to create interactive electronic objects) and Raspberry Pi (a tiny and affordable computer that you can use to learn programming).

She came out of a time when I was annoyed with the Internet of Things. It felt utilitarian. The technology was telling you how many steps you walked, or allowed you to turn the lights on before you came home. But these aren’t the top five things you want to solve in life. The technology has huge promise but these aren’t inspirational inventions.

So, I thought, why doesn’t anyone just make a computer sing its own song?

She was an experiment that scratched an itch and allowed me to do something effectively artistic while using technical components that do very specific things.

Ara is entirely useless. She is not connected to the internet (I wanted to make something that would not end up as an app on a phone). She sings when she wants to sing. She knows music and knows melody (unlike a bird, which knows no scale or melody).

The chip set sat on my dining table for a couple of weeks until I bought a felt bird and put the chip inside. I got a cage, hung it up, placed Ara inside and she would sing throughout the day.

The interesting this is, this fundamentally changed the way I felt about her. Hiding the computer inside the bird body turned her into a companion. This was surprising to me. Even more noticeable was my decision to take Ara out of the cage and put her on top. Suddenly, I found myself exploring the idea of robotic companionship - entirely by accident. It’s interesting that I had to approach the idea of useless technology to create something like that.

She went off to the Derby QUAD over the summer, where they had an exhibition on AI. She came back in a cardboard box. I took her out, plugged her in and she didn’t stop singing for the first couple of hours.

The process whereby she sings is entirely random. In essence, it’s a dice roll. If she rolls a six, she sings. But that didn’t stop me thinking she was happy to be home.

There’s something nice about having her around. And she makes no demands, unlike a living pet. This may seem a little creepy and dystopian but it’s a charming and fun way to play with the emotional possibilities of AI.

So often, AI is tinged with a sense of foreboding. Leila Johnston, Digital Curator at Site Gallery and someone I collaborate with often, describes AI as split into the idealist mother figure (as we see with Google) or the stern, disappointed father figure. AI is either feared or will take over the world. Like a sign of the times, it’s divisive.

We don’t yet have the language to get into this, but weird, dumb and strange projects (like singing birds) help give us the vocabulary to talk about it comprehensively.

Emotional AI experiments like Ara show that it wouldn’t take much to leave spaces in other applications (like web apps) for people to inject emotions. We’re building AI but should we be building emotional software?

What are our children going to be like when they’ve grown up with AI toys?

They’ll be super aware of security. Imagine conversations with your teddy bear being leaked onto the internet.

I think only 1-2% will be worried and they shouldn’t be. If technology is truly intelligent, why would it focus on destroying us? AI won’t care about our children and our children won’t care about AI. I believe computers are more interested in talking to other computers.

What’s the next stage in Ara’s evolution? 

We could get two Aras to communicate with each other. But if this is an art project, it doesn’t come in 15 colours and 55 sizes. I won’t productise it. I’ve made and sold a few. I might make a few more and sell a few more. But it is a digital art piece and no more than that.

Right now, I’m more interested in furniture. Putting AI in a table, for example, that would be fun. I like the idea of taking art off the wall and bringing it closer.

There’s a lot of irony surrounding technology and AI. We can easily become out of tune with what it is and what it’s for. It’s a relief to walk through the galleries of the V&A and appreciate art.

Do you think we’ve unleashed a demon? Let us know in the comments.  

Want to discuss how to harness AI for your business? Get in touch!

Or if you want to find out more about Duncan you can here.