We are witnessing the greatest upheavals of modern times: Artificial Intelligence and Big Data are changing fundamentally what we took for granted.
My project Quantified Reality is the attempt to photographically document these epoch-defining developments: the data collection, the data processing, the relationships between data, and foremost: the societal consequences of data and its complete penetration of everyday life. The topic is urgent – data is the oil of the 21st century.
Today, our world becomes understandable to the logic machines. The tangible is turned into bits and bytes. Now, the world becomes countable – into a Quantified Reality.
Everyday, machine cognition improves. How will artificial intelligence be used? What will its societal consequences be like? Today, digitally created and stored data exceeds in volume all information and knowledge recorded by humanity through the millennia hitherto.
However, all this data collection has a very big white spot: the biosphere. Even in Europe, unknown new species are discovered regularly. There’s little information about bird and insect populations, except that they are dying in alarming numbers: since the 1980’s, half of all starlings and sparrows disappeared and the amount of insect biomass fell by 80 percent.
The topic may seem abstract. But as a medium of translation of complex information into visual messages, photography has the potential to articulate societal, political and economic trends into visually engaging and comprehensive images.
To tackle the complexity of the topic, I propose to photograph a series of self-contained, mono-thematical chapters on narrow, well-defined sub-aspects. They may be self-motivated or commissions.
There is urgency to document the societal consequences of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence as these technologies turn hegemonic, dividing societies into the data literate and illiterate. The Quantified Reality is inevitable.
The Quantified Reality is greedy; stock traders spend multi-millions on building direct micro-wave links between the large stock exchanges like Frankfurt and London or New York and Chicago. These private connections allow stock traders to ‘act in the future’ as information is received a fraction of a second earlier than through conventional fibre-based internet connections.
The Quantified Reality triggered a world wide gold fever. Young, talented entrepreneurs are setting up 'boutique' AI and data analytics companies in the hope of rising big with Big Data. Bangalore, India, has long been famous for being the world's IT service provider. It's a huge sector, providing 40 percent of India's GDP, and it is dominated by few multi-billion companies. But as the outsourcing industry shifts from software development to Big Data, from migrating work already being done elsewhere to solving problems for which no specifications exists, the composition of the sector changes: suddenly, the small start ups and hundreds of data boutiques have an edge to the big players. The gold fever of Bangalore's start-up scene is contagious.
The Quantified Reality is built upon an ever-increasing number of data centres, computers, and various electronic devices. As the raw materials needed to produce them are scarce and expensive, resourcing relies on a vicious system of armed conflict, forced labour, and systematic rape. Is recycling and urban mining a solution to end the proliferation of conflict minerals?
The Quantified Reality is perfect surveillance. It allows an Orwellian dystopia as executed by the NSA's and GCHQ's eavesdropping programmes and the prediction of yet-to-commit crimes by PREDPOL or CAS algorithms.
The Quantified Reality is struggling to gather information about the accelerating climate change and the suffering biosphere. Even as climate change needs to be slowed urgently and the mass extinction of species needs to be stopped, data about the well-being of birds and insects are gathered by hobbyists and volunteers. Everyday species go extinct. At the same time, humans create a new species: that of artificially intelligent machines. Will drones and robots replace the role of wildlife?
The Quantified Reality makes ignorance unfeasible. For decades, India has been suffering a tuberculosis endemic. But as the only test available – detecting the bacteria with a microscope – is century-old and slow, official numbers remained low. Recently introduced, internationally funded fully automatized gene test machines turned the nationwide gut feeling into facts, making the crisis impossible to ignore.
Today, we live at the front-line between the analogue past and the digital future. It is my task to document the change: what is and what will be. I photograph bird count programs, the control rooms of stock trading companies, the pioneers of internet and AI technology, the masterminds of predictive policing software, hacker conventions, sub marine fibre cables, network operation centres. Thermal images and LiDAR point clouds will extend on conventional photography.