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The Master Algorithm

2019. The Master Algorithm, 3D Animation, 9 holographic ventillators, blue tooth sound, 15:24.  

‘The Master Algorithm’ is a companion work to Zheng Mahler’s ‘Nostalgia Machines’ which is part of an ongoing body of research and exhibitions on the political economy of the fourth industrial revolution in China and its intersection with aesthetic practice. The work is an exercise in speculative world making, providing alternative narratives for reading technological progress in China and the algorithmic development of the Asian city which might offer utopian challenges to the present.  

Every year, Chinese netizens enthusiastically examine the bookshelf behind Chinese president Xi Jinping while he delivers his new years message for clues to his current state of thought. In early 2018, it was noted that amongst copies of PLA history, general economic theory, Homer, Gogol and Hemingway his editions of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ had been placed within easy reach of his desk. Also noted was a copy of Pedro Domingo’s ‘The Master Algorithm’, a 2015 treatise on machine learning and the possibilities for AI to augur the next evolutionary leap in humanity when a ‘master algorithm’ is discovered which unites neuroscience, evolution, physics, statistics and computer science. The central hypothesis of Domingo’s visionary text is that ‘All knowledge-past, present, and future-can be derived from data by a single, universal learning algorithm.’  

Given Xi’s knowledge of the revolutionary potential for a master algorithm coupled with the state resources mobilized towards achieving the goals of China’s AI development plan, fueled by the single largest dataset on the planet gathered from China’s surveillance state (data being the new oil in the AI economy), the speculative conceit of this work is that China discovers the godlike master algorithm, or monster algorithm which will take current AI technologies implemented by the Chinese state like the social credit system and evolve them into new forms of governance and civil society that encompass every shade of darkness and light.  

At present, China is creating the world's largest digital police state, with iris, face and gait recognition technology being deployed to monitor activists and Uighur minorities in Xinjiang. The social credit system which the Chinese government is developing relies on data gathered on the population from the surveillance state and party controlled social media apps to instantly reward and punish individuals based on their political behavior. These instruments of the Chinese authoritarian state dominate Western narratives about technological development in China, but ghosts of the techno-orientalist imaginarium of China and the east, generated in the first wave of Japan panic in the 1980’s, fog the real dangers and unrealized potentials of this revolution.  

The social credit system is still not fully operational. The AI benchmarks for the Chinese state in 2020, 2025 and 2030 are yet to come. There is still space to imagine alternate worlds; how might the visionary and temporal scope of cyberpunk mutate to accommodate the city as convolutional neural network? Are there still socio/political fissures to be prised apart, bifurcations leading to unlikely urban utopias that are still possible before the system formally coalesces and is it worthwhile to speculate what these scenarios might be? 

In late 2018, Xinhua news agency in China debuted its first AI newsreader developed through a complex combination of facial recognition, face modeling, speech synthesis and deep learning, modeled after real life newsreader Qiu Hao, he began appearing in China state televisions news broadcasts as the first AI member of its news team. The AI doppelganger of Qiu Hao is the eponymous narrator of ‘The Manster Algorithm’, downloaded and compressed by a billion seeders and leechers, somewhat pixelated around the eyes, the only hint of his digital mortality are the dead pixels in the interface.

‘The Master Algorithm’ will be installed as a holographic projection of Qiu Hao, the human personification of the master algorithm, a figure which mutates, grows and disappears into clouds of data that re-materialize as techno-orientalist nightmares and Asian algorithmic utopias and cityscapes. Speaking in multiple tongues through computer generated voices, Qiu Hao ‘The Master Algorithm’ contains multitudes and takes on different personas to narrate different stories, reciting a chronological sci-fi history of the fourth industrial revolution in China sub specie aeternitatis. Each Chinese techno-utopia is narrated through vignettes moving backwards in time, linking each scenario concretely with the possibilities already embedded in the present.  

Accompanied by a synth soundtrack composed by electronic musicians Gordon Mathews ‘The Master Algorithm’ is rendered through 3D animation via the vaporwave a e s t h e s t i c s of anime and the haunted return of cyberpunk tropes. Vaporwave is the contemporary recycling of the generational techno-orientalist darkness of cyberpunk incorporated for the critical potential embedded in Mark Fisher’s hauntology and more perversely, for cyberpunks aesthetic potential to be repurposed through vaporwave to produce a soft power offensive that seduces the audience into consuming the utopian possibilities this work proposes.


Installation view at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong in 'Phantom Plane: Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future'

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