Part of the motivation behind The Giver of Names was what Rokeby, perhaps presciently, saw as a shift in the interplay between people and technology. As he wrote in an e-mail quoted in the catalogue for the 1998 premiere of The Giver of Names, in the 1980s it was the body that was “most challenged by the computer….In the ’90s it seems to be the notions of intelligence, and consciousness.”
Rokeby worries that as we grow accustomed to such phenomena as intelligent agents on the Internet and computerized phone systems, we may devalue certain human attributes. To talk to that computerized receptionist, for example, we often have to exaggerate and mechanize our speech-the change in enunciation is a “subtle dumbing-down process.” So rather than trying to make The Giver of Names a flawless facsimile of human thought, Rokeby wanted to leave it rough, exposing the “quirky textures” of a strictly mechanical intelligence rather than using clever programming to paper them over.
In action, The Giver of Names is quirky indeed. The installation space is spare: A video camera aims at a black pedestal around which a variety of objects are strewn. Off to one side is a Macintosh G3. Visitors can select objects from the pile, or items they’ve brought with them, and arrange them on the pedestal; the computer captures an image and processes it, identifying colors, outlines and shapes. The system then begins a mechanical version of free-association, pulling up words that are somehow connected to the details culled from the image. The Giver of Names’ “state of mind” in this process is a relational database of 100,000 objects, words and ideas.
An object on the pedestal, Rokeby explains, “is like a pebble dropped in a pond of memory, and the associations are like ripples moving away from the initial object and exciting or stimulating different parts of the memory.” The words most “stimulated” in this process become the palette from which the computer chooses in forming sentences that appear on the computer screen. At the same time, male and female voices fill the installation space as they utter the words.
Presented with a soda bottle and an apple, for example, the system might pick up on the red of the apple and the shape of the bottle-these would probably stimulate the word “wine,” among others, says Rokeby. “As for the sentence, it could be anything from ‘The wine spilled’ to something completely off the wall like ‘Red aliens from inner cities flopped sumptuously on the wine-stained sofa.’”
Early on, The Giver of Names tended to talk about war. The system’s fixation on generals and grenades prompted Rokeby to consider the fact that many of the databases he used were developed for military-sponsored artificial intelligence and natural-language processing research. “It’s kind of interesting,” he says, that the tools “used to train artificial intelligences about language will inevitably have a strong defense bias, because the best resources right now were funded by the Defense Department.”
Rokeby is the first to admit that such specific lessons aren’t likely to be obvious in his artworks, that most people won’t listen to The Giver of Names talking about a piece of fruit and say, “Gee, I should really think about the effects of military funding on the future of artificial intelligence.” But by seeing ourselves in collusion with and in contrast to the mechanical perceiving, thinking and speaking systems that Rokeby builds, we can all begin to think about, as he puts it, “how much of what we do is basically mechanical and how much of what we do does imply something richer and more complicated.” And Rokeby takes great satisfaction in the unique intensity with which interactive art allows him to communicate such ideas. Not everyone gets the point of each installation, he says, “but when they get it, boy do they get it.”