By Dr Marieke Navin, Head of Programming, Cheltenham Science Festival
Each year in the planning cycle of the Cheltenham Science Festival – the UK’s oldest and most prestigious annual celebration of science – the first thing people want to know from me, as Head of Programming, is who is going to be the guest curator. Typically chosen as a “Big Name” or voice in science, the idea is that they bring some creative content, great contacts and hopefully some new audiences to the science festival.
Reading an article about Lil Miquela and Instagram virtual influencers gave me an idea to create a virtual guest curator. A creative way to explore the cultural impact of AI, and take a fun look at creativity, within the science festival. I found creative agency Tiny Giant after reading an article about them using AI to create a cocktail with a bartender in Bristol. In no time, AIDA was born; her look inspired by Aida Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer; her knowledge gleaned from ten years of science festival content, as her recurrent neural network was fed with the brochures of the 2008 to 2018 festivals.
Once training was complete, AIDA was able to write an introduction to the 2019 brochure introducing herself, and to come up with an idea of an event of her very own: Introvert Narwhals. I also asked a science communicator to play the AIDA character at the event. Dressed like AIDA, she delivered AIDA’s presentation in a robotic tone. At this point I hadn’t heard of the term echoborg: where a human plays the role and speaks the words of an AI (meeting Phil D. Hall at Elzware was still in my future).
The AIDA neural network didn’t provide us with a perfect ready-made script for the show or a complete introduction for the brochure. It was very much a collaboration between the AI and the humans of Tiny Giant and Cheltenham Science Festival. We described it as curating the words and sentences and phrasing that we got from AIDA. The collaboration of the humans and the AI is what I love the most about this project. It’s not about AI taking over the world, or taking our jobs, but about how we can work with AI to come up with new ideas and really play with creativity. At the most basic level AIDA provided us with the core idea of Introvert Narwhals, and a collection of amazing sentences and phrases, which we stitched together for coherence. We also came up together with her look and her voice, so she truly has been created in collaboration.
When the 2020 Cheltenham Science Festival had to be cancelled due to the UK lockdown, AIDA was the perfect choice to present the online festival, so we were able to develop her look and feel a bit more, and create some simple videos and use her as an anchor for the at home programme. She could interact with audiences over social media and even created her own playlist.
My future vision for AIDA’s evolution is to integrate her even more within the festival. I would love to develop her to be more 3D – in the style of Lil Miquela – where she looks more lifelike and runs her own platform.
However instead of her talking about fashion or music, our AIDA will talk about science, innovation and technology, through the lens of an AI guest curator. I would like her to be out visiting our scientists and speakers who we are planning the festival with, and learning more about their research and institutions. I would love her to present this over social media, as part of the science festival, and as she learns more to keep involving her with creating new events. I love the idea of our scientists interacting with the AI and teaching her about their research, enabling her to come up with more creative ideas for the festival and new ways to talk about science with a wide variety of audiences.
We have also been working with Elzware and the I Am Echoborg show, which gives people a chance to talk directly with, and have a two-way conversation with an AI. Expanding this to an “AIDAborg” and creating a more theatrical and immersive experience with AIDA is something I would love to do.
At the moment we are looking for seedcorn funding to expand our AIDA: be it her visuals, developing her as an virtual Instagram influencer or as a theatre piece, and I hope we can get her out into the scientific community learning more science as soon as possible.
At the moment we don’t know what 2021 will bring for live events, but a key ingredient will be hybridising the online experiences of this year’s @ Home festival, with an in-person festival village in 2021, all being well with the pandemic. I hope AIDA will be with us and growing every step of the way.