Digital Whispers > Eindhoven > 2017 

In a world populated by an increasing abundance of Artificial Intelligence, it has become more and more important for us to understand the behaviours of our smarter machines. AI promises perfect systems designed to master their functions. As humans, we have imbued these artificial creatures with senses. We have given them the ability to communicate to an ever-nearer degree of naturalness, with speech and hearing being the most developed. With such efforts, we expect for these systems to be as perfect as we have designed them. But, what about errors? Beautiful mispronunciations? Loss of hearing? Faded meaning? What about the little misunderstandings that make us human? Can a machine experience them too?

In 2007 for STRP Festival, I created Digital Whispers, an interactive installation that sets seven computers and one human into a game of Chinese whispers. Machine ears and robot voices pass on messages between themselves. Like the original game, inevitable errors occur, creating word-chimeras and resulting in absurd sentences only a robot could have created. The final phrase spoken back to the visitor, often with surreal overtones, leaves viewers to question the machine as a reflection of humanity.

Using cloud-based services from IBM’s Watson, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure, Digital Whispers performs natural voice synthesis and voice recognition algorithms on a network of seven single-board computers. Each scripted computer randomises the API source when asked to physically listen to it’s n-1 or speaking to it’s n+1. By carefully positioning the directional microphones and speakers, I was able to create the right conditions to induce enough noise in the system, thus creating errors in the speech recognition algorithm.