art, Berlin, events, Film, Life in Berlin, politics, science

STATE Festival Berlin: The Sentimental Machine

Berlin’s second STATE Festival, which brings together leading scientists, innovators, social-scientists, artists and members of the public to explore one topic took place recently at Kühlhaus in Gleisdreieck. The topic in question was emotions.

Emoji balloons at the State Festival Berlin, 2016

Emotions are a fundamental part of being human, and our understanding of them not only illuminates our experiences and interactions but also raises important questions about our growing reliance on machines and the nature of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

We often think of emotions as immaterial and internal, but the festival demonstrated how physically palpable and measurable they are. Adam Anderson from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and Human Neuroscience Institute talked about how our sight and emotions are linked. Emotions, like colour, are created by the visual regions of the brain and everything we see is affected by emotion.

The Festival’s screening of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, in which the prominent designer embarks on a navel-gazing journey in the search of happiness confirmed the strong link between the body and emotion. Sagameister pursued happiness using three methods; meditation, therapy and drugs – and drugs was the most effective. The chemical changes they affected in his body made him deliriously happy to the point of falling in love and almost getting married within a matter of weeks.

The link between the emotion of love and physicality was put to the test at the festival’s interactive Sniff and Date session, in which participants did an aerobics session, captured their sweaty scent on a small patch of material, then sniffed out a potential partner. Although smelling numbered patches of sweat felt dubious, it worked! I matched with a lovely Romanian artist with whom I had a lot in common. Yes, it was a woman, who was there with her boyfriend, but it was nice to have a drink with her.

In such social situations, the hormone oxytocin plays a big role. It helps in social bonding, sexual reproduction, birth and nurturing as well as increasing the recognition and mimicry of facial emotions. Neuroscientist Sebastian Korb explained how he used electromyography (EMG) to detect facial mimicry which is so fast and subtle that it is difficult to inhibit. Facial mimicry is important to social interaction as it is key to feeling empathy (therefore procedures such as Botox, which restrict people’s facial movements, impact their ability to empathise).

As we become more dependent on technology, the ability of machines to understand and respond to our emotions will become more important. The Android game Emotion Hero demonstrated what computer recognition of facial emotion could look like. Naturally, this led to questions about whether machines would eventually be able to experience emotions themselves and what the implications of this would be.

If machines could feel, would they be granted the same rights as people? As it stands, scientists use the human brain as a model to make intelligent, self-learning robots. Of course, companies like Nvidia, Google and Intel are nowhere near creating something as powerful as the brain with its 100 billion neurones and 250 billion synapses, but the possibility is on the distant horizon. Toby Walsh, one of the world’s leading experts on AI, said he did not think the Singularity – the point where robots overtake humans – was coming any time soon.

Still, the warnings of prominent people such as Stephen Hawking, who said AI “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk, who compared developing AI to “summoning the demon” were at the forefront of many discussions. Clearly, AI and its implications must be thought about. In fact, people are already thinking about it, but they belong to an elite with commercial interests. For example, those developing the self-driving car are already making ethical decisions such as who the car should kill or injure in certain crash situations.

One of the most interesting interactive sessions was the critical thinking workshop AI Ethics and Prosthetics run by Marco Donnarumma, an artist who explores human-machine corporeality. The conversation took interesting turns, exploring questions from “Would you live with an autonomous prosthesis?” to “Where does the fault lie if a machine is responsible for killing a human?” The conversation raised more questions than answers, highlighting the complex nature of this crucial time in human history.

What was unique and fulfilling about this festival was how it hit all senses – with music, sound, visual art, films, talks, discussions and physical activities. It stimulated anxiety about a machine-filled future, passionate debate, and joy at the meeting fascinating minds – an important, emotional experience.

This year’s STATE Festival took place between 3-6 November.

Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, science, theatre, Uncategorized

Transcendence at the English Theatre Berlin

A hundred years ago, on 25th November 1915, Einstein proved his general theory of relativity, transforming our understanding of physical reality. Apt timing then, for Robert Marc Friedman’s Transcendence, a play about Einstein, at the English Theatre Berlin.

Transcendence, English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Gerald Wesolowski, courtesy of the English Theatre Berlin

The play transcends the barriers of space and time – running from 1911 to the second world war, spanning from Berlin, Prague, Zurich and Sweden to the USA – as it spins together three story strands.

One strand is the relationship between Albert Einstein and his fellow physicist Max Planck. Einstein and Planck came from vastly different backgrounds, with little in common but physics and music. Although their friendship builds despite their differences, it ultimately – in the face of a volatile political landscape (including the first and second world wars) – fails.

Another focus is the relationship between Einstein and Kafka, who almost certainly met, although no record exists of their encounters. This narrative highlights the similarities between science and art – both men use creativity and imagination in their work to search for underlying realities. Is there, they ponder, a moral equivalent to general relativity?

And finally, there are the maneuverings in Sweden concerning the Nobel Prize in Physics, influenced by politics and people who were reluctant to acknowledge Einstein and his theory (they eventually awarded him the prize for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, not for relativity = fail).

The actors (Ben Maddox, Logan Verdoorn and Max Wilkinson) approach these iconic characters in a realistic way, even lending them a comic aspect. Despite this, the play gets bogged down by its weighty subject matter. It presents too much information over too broad a scope; although each story-line is fascinating, each could have been a full-length play in itself.

Overall, it manages to string together an illuminating picture of how some of Europe’s most fascinating figures struggled to transcend harsh realities during the most volatile period of the continent’s history.

Transcendence is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstr. 40, 10965 Berlin) until 30th November 2015.