Machine: Interdisciplinary Forum - Ian Potter Museum of Art

Machine: Interdisciplinary Forum

14 Sep 2020 — 16 Sep 2020


Ever considered how technology might promote discrimination or impair our ability to make shrewd decisions? Or wondered how an AI doctor might diagnose illness just through listening?

These, and a host of other questions, were considered as part of the latest interdisciplinary forum in our ongoing series, as we engaged with a pressing concern of our time – the theme of ‘machine.’

Today, as we experience rapidly expanding developments in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, data and algorithms are increasingly impacting our daily lives. From simulating human intelligence to collecting our personal data, the machine of the computer system engages us as individuals, communities and societies — both as creators and as consumers.

Presenting a diverse program of speakers from a range of disciplines over three days, MACHINE explored a series of timely themes – investigating the interface between humanity and machine across fields of research including digital ethics, data analytics, creative writing, visual art and mathematics.

As with all forums in this series, MACHINE featured a range of our academic colleagues from the University of Melbourne, proposing art-making as a form of knowledge creation alongside other academic fields of inquiry.

To access closed captions on the session video recordings below, please click the CC button at the bottom of the screen.

A publication featuring texts from this event is available to download.

SESSION ONE | Tuesday 15 Sept | 2pm start
Co-presented with the Indigenous Data NetworkIndigenous Studies Unit, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health


2–2.15 pm
Potter introduction and welcome

The Machinery of Creativity: Indigenous Data and Computation
Darren Clinch [7:10] | Levi McKenzie-Kirkbright [15:15] | Dr James Rose [22:05]
It is a feature of Australia’s invasion by the British, that the intimate and expert knowledge of Indigenous Australians has been denied by the British, and that, where it has been acknowledged, it is treated as having no technical or scientific basis, and no economic value. This denial has continued for more than 200 years. As British descendants in Australia have learned new forms of knowledge with each global technological revolution, the fact of Indigenous Australians’ prior knowledge of science, engineering and computing has been repeatedly rejected. Even today, the proposition of computational logic as an inherent part of Indigenous Australian cultures is unacceptable to many educated people. In this talk, we discuss competing and convergent definitions of computational machinery and creativity across Indigenous and British cultures. We elaborate and then dissect the motivations and methods of this competition, and the value of an equitably articulated convergence. It is the mechanised creativity inherent in computational thinking, we argue, that is a feature of all human cultures.

Darren Clinch is Senior Data Analytics Coordinator for the Indigenous Data Network. He is a Badimia man from Yamatji country in the mid-west of Western Australia. Before joining the IDN, Darren worked for the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services in a range of senior data analysis and intelligence roles, including several years as the program coordinator for the Improving Care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Patients (ICAP) program. Darren holds multiple degrees in health and computer science.

Levi McKenzie-Kirkbright is a Software Engineer with the Indigenous Data Network. Like many Koorie people from coastal NSW, Levi’s ancestral First Nations are various: Yuin, Dunghatti, Worimi, Biripi, Gamileraay. He went to boarding school in Armidale, NSW, on the lands of the Anewan and Gamileraay. Levi holds degrees in health and is a postgraduate student in computer science.

James Rose is a National Coordinator with the Indigenous Data Network. He is a mostly British-descended, seventh-generation migrant Australian, with ancestry including convicts, squatters and first-wave 19th-century invaders. James holds degrees in social science, population health and visual arts, and has worked as a technical expert with remote, regional and urban Indigenous community-controlled organisations for nearly 20 years.

Response | Q and A [33:22]
Marcia Langton
, Associate Provost, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, University of Melbourne Member of Steering Committee, Indigenous Data Network



SESSION TWO | Wednesday 16 Sept | 2pm start
Co-presented with the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Ethics


Potter introduction and welcome

Algorithmic assistants and the value of getting it wrong  [6:22]
Jeannie Marie Paterson
Recently, there has been a proliferation of digital tools for assisting consumers in navigating access to complex services and products. Examples include comparison websites, chatbots for website advice, online tools for selecting the optimal product, and virtual home assistants that can provide advice on a range of matters. Notably, the public sector is also joining this trend with government sponsored sites providing comparisons and recommendations, and embracing the use of chatbots. These ‘digital information intermediaries’ offer considerable potential for assisting consumers and citizens in navigating the complexity of modern life. But, paradoxically, these tools also contain decision-making risks. There is potential for bias, discrimination, self-serving recommendations. There is also a more existential risk: namely the loss of the capacity to make decisions. It is only by practising the exercise of choice and learning from mistakes that our capacity for decision-making grows. Perhaps there are some decisions that should not be delegated to an algorithm because the technology is too immature and the consequences too significant.

Jeannie Marie Paterson is a Professor of Law at The University of Melbourne. Jeannie is the co-director of the Centre for AI and Digital Ethics (CAIDE), a new collaborative, interdisciplinary research, teaching and policy centre at the University of Melbourne. Jeannie is also the Co-leader of the Digital Ethics research stream at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and a member of the Advisory Board for the Australian Society of Computers and the Law. Jeannie’s research and teaching focus on consumer protection and the regulation of new digital technologies for effective, fair and safe outcomes.

The Bright but Modest Potential of Algorithms in the Courtroom [25:23]
Inbar Levy
This talk investigates the potential of algorithms and machine learning (ML) to improve decision-making in the courtroom. It considers the best roles for algorithms while maintaining important elements of human judgement. There are essential human skills in judging, but algorithms could help systematise the judicial function and thus reduce the risk of human error, inconsistency, and individual bias. Algorithmic decision-making and ML could in principle mitigate these problems since algorithms are more consistent and rely on and can synthesise more data than a human. Yet, recent proposals to use algorithms in the justice system still face scepticism. This talk evaluates the risks and benefits of using algorithms in adjudication by pointing out specific elements of legal skill and expertise and identifying tasks better suited for an algorithm. While there are significant reliability and fairness limitations in using AI to make legal decisions, it is important to recognise that many of these weaknesses already exist to varying degrees in human judicial decision-making.

Inbar Levy is a Law Lecturer at the University of Melbourne, and an expert on procedural justice and empirical legal research, with a particular interest in behaviour and decision-making, institutional design, and the ethics of algorithmic machine learning. She completed her doctorate at the University of Oxford and has held a Visiting Research Fellow position at Columbia Law School, a Visiting Researcher position at Harvard Law School, and most recently, a Houser Global Fellowship at NYU School of Law.

Response | Q and A [49:57]
Professor Liz Sonenberg
, PVC Research Systems / Research and Enterprise, University of Melbourne

Potter introduction [1:16.53]

Reading: The Xenotext [1:19.36]
Christian Bök 
The Xenotext is an artistic exercise currently being undertaken by the poet Christian Bök, who proposes to create an example of “living poetry.” Bök plans to generate a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon he intends to use a “chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium (in this case, a microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans — an extremophile, capable of surviving, without mutation, in even the most hostile milieus, including the vacuum of outer space). Bök plans to compose this poem in such a way that, when translated into the gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to the inserted, genetic material, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein — a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself yet another text. Bök is, in effect, striving to engineer a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem — a poem that might conceivably survive forever.

Christian Bök is the author of Eunoia (2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök is currently working on The Xenotext — a project that requires him to encipher a poem into the genome of a bacterium capable of surviving in any inhospitable environment. Bök is a Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada, and he teaches at the University of Melbourne, where he is Professor of Creative Writing in the School of Culture and Communication.



SESSION THREE | Thursday 17 Sept | 2pm
Co-presented with the Melbourne Centre for Data Science


Potter introduction and welcome

Listening to the Diagnostic Ear [5:46]
Sean Dockray 

What can a cough tell us? What can a cough tell about us? More than a few projects, which are collecting and analysing coughs in order to diagnose COVID-19, have appeared over the past few months. These projects appeared suddenly, all at once, like symptoms of an underlying condition. When a project such as this is finally realised as an AI Doctor, it will confront us as a diagnostic ear, listening to the noises we make to recognise what can’t be heard, what we don’t even know about ourselves. In this presentation, we will listen back, by listening to one dataset of coughs that the machine is learning from. What is this ear learning from these coughs? What can a cough tell us?

The Ian Potter Museum of Art commissioned Sean Dockray to develop an online artwork for the MACHINE Interdisciplinary Forum.

You can view and activate Listening to the Diagnostic Ear here. Make sure your sound is on.

Sean Dockray is an artist and writer whose work explores the politics of technology, with a particular emphasis on artificial intelligences and the algorithmic web. He is a founding director of the Los Angeles non-profit Telic Arts Exchange, and initiator of knowledge-sharing platforms, The Public School and AAAARG.ORG. Sean is a Lecturer in Sculpture & Spatial Practice at the Australian National University in Canberra, currently researching the rise of listening machines.

Generating Beautiful Intricacy via Self-evolving Mathematical Functions [29:27]
Kate Smith-Miles
Professorships in three disciplines (mathematics, engineering, and information technology) have given Kate Smith-Miles an interdisciplinary breadth reflected in much of her research. Negentropy Triptych is an unexpected outcome of a mathematics research project, titled “Stress-testing algorithms: generating new test instances to elicit insights”, funded by an ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship. In this talk, Kate will describe how her research quest to generate mathematical functions that are challenging and “stress-test” optimisation algorithms has led to a large collection of intricate and beautiful 2D images, contour plots of mathematical functions that have been mathematically generated to create challenging landscapes. Unable to choose which images were most beautiful, she and her co-author decided to arrange many images in an array, but noticed the presence of background structure as localised connections between the images formed depending on the arrangement.  Surveying friends about their aesthetic preferences for various arrangements revealed great diversity of taste, and interesting relationships between personality traits and aesthetic preferences for structure or randomness. Representing this spectrum of preferences as a triptych of images, from random to stronger global structure, thus depicts the emergence of global structure from randomness, and hence the negative of entropy known as “negentropy”. The mathematics used to generate the 306 intricate functions underpinning Negentropy Triptych will be lightly explained, and the resulting beautiful landscapes will be explored.

Kate Smith-Miles is a Professor of Applied Mathematics and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She graduated from the University of Melbourne with a BSc (Hons) in mathematics, and a PhD in electrical engineering, before commencing her academic career in 1996 at Monash University. Returning to the University of Melbourne in 2017, she is currently Associate Dean (Enterprise and Innovation) for the Faculty of Science, and Director of the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Optimisation Technologies, Integrated Methodologies and Applications (OPTIMA). Passionate about interdisciplinary applications of mathematics, Negentropy Triptych represents her first foray into the visual arts.

Response | Q and A [50:24]
Niels Wouters,
Research Fellow, Interaction Design Lab, School of Computing and Information Systems, Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne; Head, Research and Emerging Practice for Science Gallery Melbourne


The Potter’s annual interdisciplinary forum program series is developed by Dr Kyla McFarlane, Curator of Academic Programs (Research) in collaboration with Dr Danny Butt, Associate Director (Research) at the Victorian College of the Arts, Faculty of Fine Art and Music, University of Melbourne.