Working in and on the future / Ars Electronica Center, Linz

(c) Mooi Design / Ars Electronica

08.06. – 12.09.2021.

What will become of the “human means of production” when AI and robots take over a large part of our work today? What will “cooperative work” between humans and machines look like in the future?

Virtual work and test environments instead of offices and laboratories, talking AI systems instead of personal assistants and teams in which humans and robots literally research, develop, operate, assemble and build shoulder to shoulder? Although human-machine teams à la Tony Stark and J.A.R.V.I.S. are likely to remain science fiction, there is no doubt that new technologies are revolutionizing the way we work and live.

The Upper Austrian Chamber of Labor and Ars Electronica are therefore devoting a new exhibition to the question of what “Work in and on the Future” might look like. The show focuses on explosive thematic clusters such as “Work and Digital Transformation,” “Cooperative Work: by People and Machines,” the “Tools of the Future” or “Humanizing Technology” and includes numerous works of art and research projects. The exhibition’s narrative threads lead right through the building, past interactive installations and the Ars Electronica Center’s labs. The focus is never on the capabilities of new technologies, but rather on their potential for our societal advancement.

Cluster 1 or what “work” actually means
Plopp! Plopp! Plop! Probably every one of us has crushed bubble wrap and burst one air-filled cushion after another. Admittedly, it is a relatively pointless pastime, but it exerts its own fascination, especially when we are under stress and time pressure … With “Under pressure” ::vtol:: takes an ironic look at the relationship between humans and robots. The latter always embody that ideal worker who never sleeps, never needs a break and never shows any nerves. But what if it wasn’t us who tried to perform like robots but, conversely, robots who were a little bit more like humans? What if robots simply played with bubble wrap in between stressful times?
What we mean by the term “work”, what role it plays in our society and what “work” means in and for the life of each individual is anything but clear. The first station and intellectual starting point of the exhibition is therefore an assessment of the situation and the question of what “work” actually is?

Cluster 2 or why digitization is now changing everything – and has been for years.
While work in the 20th century was generally tied to fixed times and places, this circumstance has changed, not least due to new technological possibilities. Although today only 9.1 percent of Austrians are employed atypically (the EU average is 14.1 percent), 15 to 24-year-olds are disproportionately represented at 33.3 percent.
Whether in reports, conferences, lectures or workshops – for years, if not decades, the tenor has always been the same: “Digitization is now rolling in and it is changing everything. What exactly and how it is changing everything, and above all why it keeps doing so “now,” is never quite clear. Why is that? The second station of the exhibition addresses the fact that the omnipresent term “digitization” does not merely refer to the transformation of analog values into digital signals, but to a process that affects society as a whole – in the long term. The true (digital) revolution is anything but a “big bang”; it stems not from the mere emergence of a new technology, but from its sometimes unforeseeable use and the changes in our behavior it triggers. The most recent example is the Corona crisis: It was not Zoom and Co that were new, but the fact that we were using these tools overnight in the home office.

Cluster 3 or how work and digitization go together
Let’s stay with Zoom and Co. for a moment. After more than a year of “physical distance,” most of us have experienced the advantages and disadvantages of working (together) with digital tools. This field test, which was as involuntary as it was global, will undoubtedly leave its mark on the world of work – the task now is to find a social consensus on what this should look like. Station 3 of the exhibition does not stop at the much-cited regulations for the home office, but asks the general question of how much flexibility will shape our working world in the future and what role digital tools will play. Regardless of which job profiles are created or disappear as a result, the question is how we can ensure that all these changes take place in a socially responsible and fair manner.

Cluster 4 or our data is the new oil
“Welcome to AI Oracle. By entering this cube you agree to our terms of scanning all your existing data and selecting a future job for you. Welcome to the future! You shall now be scanned!” With the research and mediation project “AI Oracle”, “Collective no:topia – International art collective” addresses the handling of our data. Which and how much of our data do we have to give away in order to be able to participate in a future shaped by technology? Where do we draw our boundaries and how do we enforce them?
89 percent of Austrians regularly use the Internet, 95 percent of them via smartphone. People in this country spend almost 6 hours a day online, shopping, booking vacations, communicating with friends, listening to music, watching videos and playing games – in short, because we move in digital spaces every day as a matter of course, we are constantly producing data. All this data provides information about our habits, interests and preferences and is therefore of the greatest interest to business and politics. Reason enough, then, to call for clear rules when it comes to handling our data – and that’s exactly what Station 4 of the exhibition is all about. The protection of our privacy and fairness must be guaranteed in the future, just as innovation and technological development must be possible. What is clear is that whoever has access to data can generate knowledge today, which means power tomorrow.
Can we design AI systems so that their recommendations – their “conclusions” – are fair and objective? That’s exactly what Retorio GmbH is working on. Their video-based human resource software combines AI with insights from psychology and organizational research and has learned to assess people without prejudice based on hundreds of thousands of videos.
All this data has long since been processed not by humans, but by algorithms. Algorithms from which Europeans hope to make efficient and accurate decisions and save time, but at the same time worry about whether programmers will gain too much power and open the door to manipulation.

Cluster 5 and the tools of the future
Exoskeletons can relieve the physical strain on employees – for example in industry – and prevent musculoskeletal disorders. There are different solutions for this, depending on the activity and the stressed body region: The “Paexo Shoulder” from Ottobock provides support for overhead work by transferring the weight of the arms to the hips using a mechanical pulley system. The “Paexo Thumb” helps with repetitive work that puts a lot of strain on the thumb. The “Cray X” from German Bionix, on the other hand, is the world’s first networked exoskeleton that acts as an intelligent link between man and machine, self-learning to reinforce lifting movements and prevent incorrect posture.
The history of our species is characterized by technology. The oldest tools found to date date back to the Paleolithic Age, more than 2.5 million years ago, and it is no coincidence that we always name all subsequent stages of our success story after raw materials and associated technologies or production processes. Today, we are again in the midst of a profound transformation that many are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Station 5 of the exhibition is located in the Ars Electronica Center’s Labs and reveals the possibilities of processes like 3D printing, tools like exoskeletons or fields like materials research.
“Komagataeibacter Xylinus” is an aerobic acetic acid bacterium that uses oxygen to convert sugar into cellulose. This is exactly what makes it interesting for Miriam Eichinger and Emanuel Gollob and the entire “Fashion & Robotics” team; in the future, these bacteria could offer an alternative to the cotton plant in the textile sector. The basic research “Grow Whole Garments” is intended to provide insights into the growth of the bacteria and contribute to how this can be controlled and managed: Is it possible to develop processes so that bacteria grow as a spatial textile object?

Cluster 6 or my colleague, the machine?
“You look a bit tired, I suggest you grab a coffee.” “I would not formulate that sentence that way.” “I gathered that you are a morning person. Start the afternoon in the meditation zone.” With “Queen B,” Studio LONK speculates on the atmosphere of a future “smart office.” The work environment is packed with cameras and sensors that document, analyze and log everything that goes on. Some feel protected and supported here, others simply monitored and patronized …
Digital assistance systems, brain-computer interfaces, machine-learning applications … Whether at home and in our leisure time as well as at work – we interact more and more often and more closely with machines and programs. Station 6 of the exhibition is located in the middle of the big show “Understanding AI” and is about how the mere use of tools and instruments is increasingly giving way to a purpose-oriented collaboration between people and machines.
Good old craftsmanship is the measure of all things – and therefore often a source of inspiration for technology development. What if we could digitize and replicate highly complex and delicate things like puppetry? What possibilities would this open up? With “Pinocchio,” the Creative Robotics Lab at the Linz University of the Arts and the Ars Electronica Futurelab let the classic game with puppets meet modern industrial robots and man and machine create a choreography rich in symbolism….
What does this mean for us and our understanding of “work”? Will interpersonal collaboration change as a result? What status and role will “human labor” have in the future? Who will make decisions and who will take responsibility? And will machines one day really be something like “colleagues” – or will they remain just tools in the end?
The LIT Law Lab at Johannes Kepler University is researching the potential of the digitalization of administration and jurisdiction. The aim is to examine what is technically possible, legally permissible and politically desirable. With the installation “AI Truth Machine”, the LIT Law Lab addresses the opportunities and challenges of finding the truth through a machine. A system provided by Converus® determines the truth in a completely different way than flesh-and-blood judges: Within the framework of an AI-supported process, eye movements and pupil changes of the interviewees are precisely analyzed.

Regardless of how we shape our role and that of machines in the future, in a larger, global context, the question arises as to what economic, ecological, social and political circles a living world permeated by technology will draw.
“Alexa, turn on the hall lights!” It is quite short, terse commands like this that invoke a vast matrix of capacities one time or another every day in millions of homes around the world: intertwined chains of resource extraction, human labor, and algorithmic processing across networks of mining, logistics, distribution, prediction, and optimization. The scale of this system is beyond our imagination. With “Anatomy of an AI,” Vladan Joler and Kate Crawford have pioneered the field. In the course of impressively sprawling research, they use the example of a voice-controlled, Internet-based smart assistant like Amazon Echo to sketch an anatomical map of a single AI system that helps us glimpse the complexity and impact of our commerce …

Cluster 7 and “Humanizing Technology
Technology should become more “human”. But what does that mean? Well, two things in particular: first, technology should not merely create economic added value, but above all social added value, and second, its development should be geared to our needs and not the other way around, we humans having to adapt to technology. Station 7 of the exhibition shows what role we humans and our creativity could play in an increasingly automated and digitized working world. “AI x Music” is the motto on the third floor of the Ars Electronica Center, where a series of best-practice projects will then use the example of music to demonstrate how the interaction between humans and machines has developed historically – and what innovative forms it is taking today …
Whether Ali Nikrang’s “Ricercar: An AI-Based Music Companion”, which aims to soon create an intuitive interface between a human artist and an AI-based composition system, or Moritz Simon Geist’s music robot system “TOC ONE”, which can generate sounds and rhythms from virtually any object on the planet – the work in and on the future promises to be exciting!

Die Arbeit in und an der Zukunft
08.06. – 12.09.2021
Ars Electronica Center
Ars-Electronica-Straße 1
4040 Linz