Liam Young collecting radioactive tailings material from the world's Largest Rare Earth minerals refinery in Mongolia. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Last year, the Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic design studio that explores peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness, travelled to Asia to follow the path of the symbol of globalization: the massive container ship. The group came back with amazing stories, images, videos and with a set of radioactive Ming vases made from the toxic waste of our electronic gadgets.

Along their journey, Unknown Fields investigated Rare earth element, a set of seventeen chemical elements which are all metals that are often found together in geologic deposits. What makes REE important to our times is that they are used for computer memory, rechargeable batteries, night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, phones, energy-efficient lighting, solar panels, and many other electronics and green technologies.

China is the number one consumer of rare earths, they use it mainly in the manufacture of electronics products for domestic use as well as export. Since the 1990s, China is also one of the world's main producer of rare earths. A large proportion of the country's rare earth production is located in the west of Inner Mongolia where the Bayan Obo Mining District oversees the largest deposits of rare earth metals yet found.

Aerial view of Bayan Obo, on June 30, 2006. Image Earth Observatory

A toxic lake of mine and refinery tailings stretches for over 6km from Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation

The highly restricted Bayan Obo Rare Earth mine © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

The giant industrial complex is one of the most polluted regions on the planet. It processes 100 thousand tons of rare earth concentrate per year using the sulphuric acid-roasting method and for every ton of rare earth concentrate produced 10,000 cubic metres of waste gas, 75 cubic metres of acid-washing waste water, and one ton of radioactive residues are generated.

The amount of toxic clay produced in the manufacture of a single smart phone is moulded into a Ming vase form. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

The vases are made from the exact amount of toxic waste produced in the manufacture of a smartphone, a laptop and an electric car battery cell. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

To accompany the film that documents their adventures, Unknown Fields Division crafted a set of three ceramic Ming vases, using mud extracted from one of Bayan Obo's gigantic radioactive tailing ponds. The toxic sludge, which contains acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material, was transported it to London where it was tested for radioactivity. After that, the mud was given to sculptor Kevin Callaghan who turned it into elegant vases which silhouette evokes the Ming dynasty porcelain Tongping Vases. Once a family global superpower, the Ming dynasty presided over an international network of connections, trade and diplomacy that stretched across Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, built on the trade of commodities such as imperial porcelain.

Each object is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology - a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery. Besides, the vases are sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of each item.

The three Rare Earthernware vases embody the contemporary global supply network but also the long-lasting impact that our thirst for technological goods has on the environment. They will soon be shown at the What is Luxury exhibition in London:

These three vessels are artifacts of a contemporary global supply network that weaves matter and displaces earth across the planet. They are presented as objects of desire, but their elevated radiation levels and toxicity make them objects we would not want to possess and in this case the museum vitrine serves to protect us from the exhibit on display rather than the other way round. They are the undesirable consequences of our material desires.

Rare Earthenware, video by Toby Smith

A worker steams cyrstals from a precipitator in a stage 1 rare earth refinery. The cyrstals contain an elevated concentration of rare earth oxides. © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

A rare-earth refinery with centrifuges concentrates Rare Earth ore into industrial application before it is force dried into powder form. 76% of the world's rare-earth magnets are produced in China. © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Radiation scientists test the toxic clay collected from the tailings lake and find it to be 3 times background radiation. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Rare Earthenware is a work by Kate Davies and Liam Young of The Unknown Fields Division in partnership with the Architectural Association. Photography by Toby Smith. Ceramics by Kevin Callaghan and the London Sculpture workshop.

Rare Earthernware will premiere this April 22nd at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the What is Luxury exhibition. The show will be open until the 27th of September 2015.

Sponsored by:

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Antenna pointing at the Embassy of the U.S.

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Pariser Platz

Berlin-based artists Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud have installed WLAN / WiFi mesh network with can antennas on the roofs of the Academy of Arts and the Swiss Embassy, both located in the heart of "NSA's Secret Spy Hub" in the city. The network is at the disposal of passersby who would like to communicate anonymously and even send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence who might lurk inside the nearby British Embassy and Embassy of the United States.

The installation is a direct reference to Edward Snowden's revelations that the U.S.' NSA, the UK's GCHQ and other key partners were operating a network of electronic spy posts hidden within the fabric of diplomatic buildings around the world.

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

Wachter and Jud's DIY can antennas don't hide themselves. They stand in plain sight between the camouflaged US and British listening posts and their network stretches over the administrative district of Berlin.

At the point at which the interception of Angela Merkel's cell phone occurred, the open network of anonymous communication options now unfolds as a legal and legitimate response to rigid restrictions on our freedoms and hidden, secret surveillance.

Messages can be sent to the intelligence agencies on the frequencies that are intercepted by the NSA and GCHQ. These personal messages include activist and political contributions, ironic disclosure of embarrassing intimacy, and calls for resistance. Many appeals are aimed directly at the surveillance operatives asking them to switch sides and become whistleblowers.

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Antenna, Reichstag Gate

Mathias Jud was kind enough to answer my questions about the installation:

Hi Mathias! How did you get the authorizations to install the antennas? By the way, did you ask for authorisations?

Yes, all the antennas are authorised! They wouldn't be up there for more than 5 minutes otherwise.

The whole region is under special protection as it is next to the Parliament and the German Federal Chancellery. Surveillance, Police and Security are omnipresent. During our build up of the antenna tower a special Police helicopter with a pivoting surveillance cam was circling above us.

Long answer:
As we are both Swiss, we have been asked about a year ago by the Swiss embassy to present our work at the embassy. The Swiss embassy in Berlin is located right next to the German Federal Chancellery. Most probably they had something like a slide show in mind. However, we gratefully accepted the invitation and presented the concept of "Can you hear me?" to the embassy.

We also asked the Academy of Arts that is located next to the US embassy at the Brandenburg Gate. (The Academy of Arts is not an university, but an international 'master' academy of artists that was funded by a former Prussian king, and an art museum and collection.) Klaus Staeck, the President of the Academy and himself an active political graphic designer was very fond of the idea and promoted it together with Birgit Hein, the chief of the section Visual Arts.

In the last year we spent a lot of time discussing this project to be able to realise it. It is completely legal, and has the approval of the Swiss ambassador, the Swiss foreign office. The members of the Academy of the Arts discussed this project in their annual meeting and voted in favour of it. The German Federal Chancellery has been informed by the Swiss embassy.

Although our constitutional rights are restricted in the non-protest zone in the government district, there is no restriction of digital communication. With our qaul.net network that is the technological basis of the "Can you hear me?" installation we can experience a completely user-based network without any service provider as gate keeper and regulatory force in the network.

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014

You organize guided tours. What do you show people exactly?

Guided tours are a possibility to discuss the project with us and to experience the special rules in the government district and the restricted zones in front of the embassies. We experience together the mesh network, and the area. We show how we built the antennas, discuss the network, the artwork and the philosophy behind it.

Heat maps show how activity in the US embassy's spying nest significantly reduced from 24 October (top picture) to 25 October, after it emerged that the US bugged Chancellor Merkel's phone (ARD Panorama, via The Independent)

The GCHQ 'nest' on the top of the UK's Berlin embassy (Buggedplanet.info, via The Independent)

You also encourage people to send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence, is that correct? how do you know how to reach them?

There is a special veneered wall at the US embassy, clearly discovered by infrared cameras where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the NSA is located. The GCHQ has a white radome where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the British is located.

Our antenna-tower on the roof of the Academy of the Arts is right in the middle of these listening posts and has a clear connection to them.

All messages in the WIFI mesh network are sent unencrypted to all participants in the network.

Thanks Mathias!

Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Can You Hear Me, 2014. Antennas at Swiss Embassy

See also: Julian Oliver and Daniil Vasiliev's PRISM: The Beacon Frame. Speculative NSA Network Surveillance Equipment which was swiftly censored.)

Eizo Ishikawa and Tamon Sawangdee, CRAF, 2014

Examples of different themed projectiles

Third (and last) project from the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a Bartlett School of Architecture research group and Masters Programme headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin...

With CRAF, Eizo Ishikawa and Tamon Sawangdee looked at how machines can be deployed to organize spectacles and engage people into performances and new forms of social protests. CRAF turns into paper planes messages of protests that people exchange on social media. Comments and reactions sent to @aerocraf are printed on paper, folded into little projectiles and thrown over passersby by a 6 meter high paper plane-folding machine.

Quick discussion with Tamon Sawangdee:

Hi Tamon! Why did you call the work CRAF? Is it an acronym?

CRAF has many meanings for our project. It came from our first paper plane folding machine project, which was called "AEROCRAFT". We chose the word "CRAFT" to signify its folding activity and transportation ability. After we have been working on our project for a while, we develop ourselves and our machines into an agency that is called CRAF. Having our ideas rooted from people protesting and looking for ways to express their ideas or feelings, we created CRAF to be the agent that works with people and can act for them. It is an acronym from Cultural Restoration and Acting Facilities.

You tested CRAF on Gordon Square. Can you tell us about the experience? How did people react?

The experience from testing CRAF in Gordon Square was really amazing. We have been working on it for a long time and it was the first time that we got to see it fully equipped and elevated up to 6 metres in the park. The weather was nice and sunny on that day so we got a lot of audience from the people who came in to have lunch, as well as, the ones who were just passing by. Some would come to talk to us about how it worked and what it was, while, most of the people sat around and waited to see the performance. One of the noticeable reaction that we got was the group of people who sat down and asked each other "What is that?" pointing to our machine. People were talking about our project and they were surprised about it being in the center of what was usually very quiet park. We were satisfied about the test in Gordon Square because a lot people showed a lot of interest. It was nice to see people enjoying what we were doing.

Eizo Ishikawa and Tamon Sawangdee, CRAF, 2014

Eizo Ishikawa and Tamon Sawangdee, CRAF, 2014

Eizo Ishikawa and Tamon Sawangdee, CRAF, 2014

Example of Print Out Invitations to be folded by the machine


Is there any reason why you selected the colours red white and blue for the ribbons hanging from the machine?

Our theme for CRAF was #FLYFORPEACE, it is a civilian service. Our concerns, are about the political, socio-economical and cultural sustainability aspect of the community. We chose the colour red, white and blue for our prototype because we wanted to give it an appearance of stability, freedom, with a touch of revolution and justice. We wanted our machine to be amicable but not too whimsical, though, at the same time representing the topics of the conversations that we were trying to create. At that time, our machine was representing the Scottish Independence Referendum, if our machine was to perform to represent another message, the colours of the ribbons could change to match that theme.

How does it work? How does the paper get fold into airplanes?

If you tweet to the machines twitter account @aerocraf. The printer would print the message onto the paper plane. When the paper comes out of the printer, it gets fed into the paper plane folding machine, that's when the folding starts to happen. There are 3 steps of folding. The paper travels through the machine by the use of rollers controlled by motors, chains and sprockets. The machine folds the paper in to a plane by folding the tip of the paper plane first, and then the side wings, the centre of the plane gets fold half until it comes out of the machine. Then, it is ready to launch!

View from CRAF looking down over the park

And does the machine send the planes in random directions?

The machine can rotate 180 degrees. The rotational movement can vary depending on the site and installation strategies. The print outs and the instructions of how to use the machine comes out in random directions when there are many people. We want the paper planes to be received by the citizens, so, ideally it would have a behavior that looks for people and decide its projectile direction.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered while developing the work?

One of the biggest challenge while developing the work was how to get people to realise that the paper planes that we were flying was containing a message. In order for our project to work smoothly, we needed to get people from the public to work with us. We had a lot of trouble trying to get people to behave accordingly to how we expected, which was to pick up our papers and investigate them and respond our paper planes. Different people in different places would react differently, we had to do many experiments to find our way of delivering the paper airplanes, its flying ability, and what it looks like and how the messages communicate to the people. We also had to design our installation strategy and opening performance to grab the interest from the crowd.


Paper Plane Manufacturing Line Embedded into Aluminium Folded Plane Structure

The text of the catalogue says "CRAF can be a network of communication platforms along the city by having machine carriers traveling along the existing bike routes of London." Could you explain how that would work?

CRAF was created to be a communication platform that was initially inspired from the contemporary social crisis and the expressions of dissent happening around our world. We wanted it to be able to serve as a novel communication tactic that people can use to express themselves freely about their ideologies or simply talk to each other via the aid of social media in the hope that it would create a stronger and more culturally sustainable community.

When we were developing CRAF, we were looking for strategies to disseminate our messages and get people involved with the performances. We studied street performances and theatrical machines. We got inspired by how they were able to attract or engage people into live events. Because of that, the idea of using bicycles as a mode for transporting our machines came to our minds -- however, we were not limited to just bicycles but tend to see CRAF working rather more of something like a vehicle or a machine integrated within a vehicle. Our machines were designed to be able to travel around and interact with people or get people to interact with each other along its path. In that sense, we think that CRAF can be developed into a system of multiple machines that can be moved or carried around the city.

Making use of social media and the rapid spread of its content via the internet and social networks, we wanted CRAF to become an agency that can be installed into different nodes like the public spaces of London. The communication network coming out from CRAF is imagined to work similar to that of online social network from social media. Instead of only having people interacting in the online space, we wanted to bring people from the online communities out to enjoy the physical environment. When CRAF physicalised online messages into public space, we can have a real human to human interaction. In a way, CRAF is meant to encourage physical social networks happening from the systems machines traveling and sending out messages around its routes.

What is next for CRAF? Are you planning other performances?

At the moment we haven't been planning any performances.

Eizo is back in Japan and I am now in Thailand. We are both doing different things.
Maybe it can be adapted into something suitable for Bangkok or Tokyo. We'll see.

Thanks Tamon!

Also from the same Bartlett course: The Eye Catcher and Furl: Soft Pneumatic Pavilion.

Flone is a drone (an unmanned aerial vehicle) which uses a smartphone as a flight controller and explores novel ways to "occupy" public space, in particular the air and claim the right to use it before legislation makes it illegal.

Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

Flone. Maiden Flight

Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

Created by artist and computer engineer Lot Amorós, technical engineer Cristina Navarro, and industrial engineer Alexandre Oliver, Flone turns the mobile phone into a stand-alone flying apparatus which can go up to a height of 20 metres from the ground, come down, rotate and do the usual smartphone tasks, such as taking photographs or video recordings. It can also be remotely controlled by another smartphone with a wifi or 3G connection.

Its objective is to make air space accessible to everyone as a research platform, providing a range of applications for them to operate with a smartphone alone. The combination of its different sensors and telematic connections transform Flone into a multimedia drone, a mobile communication unit that moves around in a new space: the public air.

Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

I briefly interviewed the creators of Flone:

One of the objectives of Flone "is to make air space accessible to everyone as a research platform." So i was wondering if there's any particular legislation about air space (at least in Spain) and if anyone is free to have all kinds of devices fly anywhere into the air to record, photograph, sense, etc.

Flying 300 meters above the ground or close to airports generally requires a permission from the Spanish Aerial Authority (AENA). However, there are no national laws regarding the use of aerial space below 300 meters. In Spain, these laws depends on local governments and currently almost none of them has any law on that regard simply because no one before had ever used space to fly drones or anything of the kind.

We spent a long time asking lawyers and drone pilots about this legal gap but nobody has the right answers. There are many variables to take into consideration: whether you're flying over private or public land, taking images or not, for commercial purposes or not... Anyway, even if we do everything legally, we live in Españistán, a country where politicians and policemen don't respect the law in any sense and where they can punish people without any reason.

In the United States the airspace for private drones will be regulated in 2015. In Europe a common law is coming, but until this date the air is a no man's land.

One year ago, in the exhibition of GuerrillaDrone in the Netherlands I showed the stupid duty process for taking aerial images.

Post Cold War permissions and correspondence with the Ministerie Van Defense of The Netherlands, at the Guerrila Drone Exhibition in MOBIBOM in Groningen, 2012

Right now the law is changing, but one year ago The Netherlands had a very restrictive law dating back to the Cold War, I still have a copy of the law that explicitly says that if anybody publishes an aerial image of The Netherlands without the explicit permission of the Ministry of Defense they will be punished with some months in jail.

How far are you in the development of Flone? Do you still have much to achieve?

Flone can have a lot of capabilities and flying modes. So far we have developed the physical platform, and right now we are developing the software interface, we are focused on the pilot experience, designing a more natural way to interact with a flying machine.

We have already developed a Android app for flying flone without the traditional RadioControl equipment.

Image courtesy of the artists

Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

What can Flone do so far?

Transform the airspace into an accessible public air.

How are you planning to use the flying smartphones personally? And did you meet with beta testers, members of the public who suggested surprising ways to use Flone?

Each new idea of using flone (or any other drone) is a surprising one, and is also probably totally unprecedented. Anyway we prefer the idea of flone as a shared vehicle instead of a personal one. Private cars have changed the way public space is designed and used. We prefer an ecopolítical idea of a public network of flying devices.

Until now we have already built some airframes for different people, a lot of people contact us asking for information but becoming a drone pilot and becoming beta tester taks time. Next month we will do a drone hackademy in Barcelona and we plan to build 20 flones. With the stable release of the app we expect that a lot of people will get involved.

Lot Amorós demonstrating Flone at the Maker Faire in Bilbao. Photo: Cristina Navarro

Demo of Flone at the BcnDevCon13, the third edition of the Barcelona Developers Conference,

Did you meet unexpected challenges during the development of the projects? Things that didn't go according to plan, that were more difficult to implement than you thought or that surprised you?

Dealing with time in the milliseconds scale. Motors update their velocity 400 times each second. Debugging this kind of fast robotics requires a lot of experience. It's not about finding the best solution, it's about finding the equilibrium between the fastest and the best.

I have a question just for Lot who worked on Guerrilla Drone: is Flone another form of GD? Maybe one that looks less threatening and that is lighter?

Yes, but was not a direct transformation. The main element of Guerrilla Drone is their microprojector that has the same size of a smartphone. Flone is a kind of democratic version of Guerrilla Drone in the sense of making the technology accessible, but has a different concept.

What's next for Flone?

A webpage with real time flyings of users around the world, smartphone-based glasses for piloting flone by First Person View, autonomous flight plans, gimbal-mirror for video stabilization, improving the failsafe SMS-ing of the position if the flone gets lost, multiple connection with 3G & Wifi, an automatic path calculation for flying swarms... and a parachute.

This are some future developments, but right now, the next for us is: Use it!

We spent the last six months of our lives developing it, so right now the main motivation is exploring the airspace for ourselves.

Thanks Lot, Cristina and Alexandre!

Image courtesy of the artists

Flone was the winning project of Next Things 2013 - Next Space, the Second Global Art and Technology Challenge, the joint call for ideas by Telefónica I+D, the research, development and innovation company of the Telefónica Group, and LABoral.

Do you remember Technoviking? He was one of Youtube's sensations in 2007. Millions of people admired his dancing skills and undeniable male magnetism but to this day, his identity remains a mystery. The technoviking video has been blogged, commented, shared, emailed and sparked numerous parodies.

Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

Wafaa Bilal has installed an inflatable Technoviking avatar at All Saints Park in Manchester for AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art (running this weekend and you should run there too if you can, it's that good). The gigantic head is linked a twitter account and in order to breathe life into it, people have to tweet about it otherwise Technoviking will go flat and dance right back to oblivion again. So go and tweet #technoviking to keep him alive!

Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

Pop culture and astute social comments cohabit in this work like in other works by Bilal. Meme Junkyard is fun and a bit silly of course but it also invites us to reflect on the promises of constant connectivity, on the meaning of 'going viral,' of generating almost unlimited levels of attention before fading back into disinterest. What happens to the technoviking (as well as to the other meme that will soon lay to inflate and deflate in the meme junkyard) is similar to what awaits our ego when other web users stop re-tweeting our rants, linking to our blog posts (oh please let that never happen to me!), or thumbing up our status on facebook.

Wafaa Bilal talking about Meme Junkyard: Technoviking

And the one and only:

Wafaa Bilal is going to discuss his work this Sunday at Cornerhouse. The event is free.

AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art remains open all over Manchester until 2 September 2012.

Other works by Wafaa Bilal: Subversion in the Arab Art world, A few words with Wafaa Bilal, Book Review - Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Wafaa Bilal, ...and Counting.


When i interviewed Tom Keene in the studios of Resonance FM a couple of months ago, he told me approximately 44 seconds before the end of the programme that he was working on a speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money.

The work, called Uncertain Substance, investigates the Viterbi algorithm which was devised by Andrew Viterbi in 1966 as an error-correction scheme for noisy digital communication. Its use has since been extended to many digital technologies: speech recognition, satellite, DNA analysis, video encryption, deep space, wireless communications systems, etc. Physical manifestations of this algorithm exists as microchips installed in mobile devices, enabling communications networks to permeate every conceivable space, blurring distinction between home, work and social environments.

Tom's interest in the algorithm isn't purely motivated by a passion for programming, his project is also looking into the social effect of its application and implementation:

Used to identify patterns and trends of human behaviour, the Viterbi plays a role in automated systems that interpret, record and report on human activity. These systems increasingly make economic decisions, govern response to crime, disaster, health and manage the everyday flow of cities. The Viterbi operates at a deep social level as it constructs new sets of social relations and radically shapes the development of our cities.

Uncertain Substance: The Viterbi Algorithm was shown recently at Forking Bits, the graduation show of the MA Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths in London. I was out of town that week, so i decided to make yet another interview with Tom:


Hi Tom! You developed speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money. How does the research of the search manifest itself? What happens? Did you test the system? Where and what were the results?

I tested two versions of the system, one as an installation in an old porters office in Goldsmiths University, the other as a mobile version built into a shopping trolley which I tested at Moving Forrest at Chelsea College of Art. The porters office version displayed two very dull looking computers one of which was a speech recognition server (SRS) built around the open source project CMUsphinx, and the other was a software defined radio server (SDRS) which was built around a hacked £10 USB TV tuner. The SRS listened to the audio output of the SDRS and if it detected speech then it would stay on that radio station in the hope that it would find a keyword from a list (Money, Credit, Debt, Thousand, Billion, Trillion etc), if it didn't find any words within 20 seconds, then it would trigger the SDRS to find another station where it would begin the process again.

The porters office added its own narrative which I discovered while cleaning it out and getting rid of years of grime and dumped objects - it recorded a pretty depressing history - there were old letters of redundancy, a broken pair of spectacles, betting slips, a small screen marked "payroll". I incorporated these elements in the space as a subtle way of illustrating the entanglement of algorithms into everyday lives and other media systems, where algorithmic reporting and profiling informs and influences our decision making processes, event though these outputs haven't necessarily been planned or programmed, the technology is then exerting its own power and its that mechanism that I want to understand.


Can the person monitoring the algorithm actually understand the conversation?

If by that you mean, did the system do a good job of translation? No - it's terrible at translating radio! Speech recognition is a very tricky thing to do well and this sort of system is much better suited to recognising a few keywords spoken by a voice it has been specifically trained to listen to. Though in this instance I wasn't particularly fussed about the quality of the speech recognition, I really enjoyed (along with the audience) watching the weird sentences that were being produced as the result of a mathematical model.

What I really wanted to achieve was for the audience to engage with the operations of the algorithm, the decisions it made and how it entangles itself with other media and social systems. To achieve this I attempted to display its inner workings as much as possible.

The SDRS displayed the radio frequency it was tuning into and you could hear the audio as it shifted between pure noise, music or speech. On a second screen the SRS displayed a rolling log of; transcribed audio, found keywords, how long it had been listening for and feedback that indicated if it was bored or couldn't understand the conversation. A point of sale receipt printer generated a physical paper trail as it printed any texts about money as and when they were found. I also managed to rig up a CCTV screen that displayed the current radio frequency/time, which also broadcast (through an on-board speaker) "found money" which it spoke in a digital voice whenever a money conversation had been found. So this relatively simple set-up incorporated multiple media systems of: Radio, Paper, CCTV, Work life, Finance, Computer networks - each touched by the Viterbi algorithm in some way.


Wasn't the public upset by the idea that an algorithm was looking for their financial conversations?

Not at all! More amusement than anything else. The most common question was - is it going to make you rich? Which gave me an opportunity to talk about the wider issues of the project and the fact that it can be very difficult to understand the the effects of the Viterbi algorithm as it cannot be separated from complex layers of social (human and technical) layers in which it is embedded. This project has been been about building a series of contraptions as a means to reveal the effect and influence of the Viterbi, the speech recognition project has been just one of those exercises, others have included its use in Mobile technologies, and its path finding capabilities.

If i understood correctly the description of your project, many crucial governmental and economic decisions depends on the algorithm's interpretation of human activity. One would expect an algorithm to be reliable and rational so surely, we should be reassured that our fate is in such capable 'hands', right?

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the Viterbi is used by Government and that's a worrying thing - I'm not attempting to make a value judgement here - there are many examples of algorithms being used for governmental and non governmental decision making process which have both positive and negative effect. I am just attempting to illustrate the social effect of an algorithm used in a mutlitude of systems, where the power of those systems is not held by any single political party or economic system, but is dissipated and exerted by the system itself. That power exerted by these systems have the potential to influence city planning decisions, or discipline people's behaviours at a micro level in their day to day lives, where social effect doesn't occur because it has been programmed that way, or that government investment has created an infrastructure that facilitates greater control of he population, but rather new social phenomena is produced in a messy, unstructured chaotic way outside of human control. In terms of these algorithms being rational, then at the level of mathematics and science they are, but at the level of their actual real world social effect, then they are most certainly not.

Thank you Tom!

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