Why Artist Trevor Paglen Is Doing Everything He Can to Warn Humanity About Artificial Intelligence

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In fall 2019, a new app called ImageNet Roulette was introduced to the world with what seemed like a simple, fun premise: snap a selfie, upload it to a database, and wait a few seconds for machine learning to tell you what type of person you are. Maybe a "teacher," maybe a "pilot," maybe even just a "woman." Or maybe, as the app's creator warned, the labels the system tagged you with would be shockingly racist, misogynistic, or misanthropic. Frequently, the warning turned out to be prescient, and the app immediately went viral thanks to its penchant for slurs and provocative presumptions.

Long since decommissioned, ImageNet Roulette was part of a larger initiative undertaken by artist Trevor Paglen and artificial intelligence researcher Kate Crawford to expose the latent biases coded into the massive data sets informing a growing number of A.I. systems. It was only the latest light that Paglen's work had shined onto the dark underbelly of our image-saturated, technology-mediated world. Even beyond his Ph.D. in geography and his MacArthur "Genius" grant, Paglen's resume is unique among his peers on blue-chip gallery rosters. He's photographically infiltrated CIA black sites, scuba-dived through labyrinths of undersea data cables, launched art into space, and collaborated with NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, all as a means of making innovative art that brings into focus the all-but-invisible power structures governing contemporary life.

On this week's episode of The Art Angle, Paglen joins Andrew Goldstein by phone to discuss his adventurous career. Although the episode was recorded before George Floyd's murder sparked nationwide demonstrations for racial justice, Paglen's work is more timely than ever for its probing of surveillance, authoritarianism, and the ways both are being simultaneously empowered and cloaked by A.I.

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