Interspecies Communication Research Initiative (ISCRI): A Cephalopod ↔ Machine Encounter
How can an octopus, in an encounter with artificial intelligence, transform our understanding of technological development?
Alasdair Milne, a PhD researcher with Serpentine’s Creative AI Lab and the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London dives into the possibilities for creative interspecies collaboration between artists, AI and octopi.
Fragmented patterning and colouration warp and pixelate along a CGI tentacle; imagery produced by a specialist team of visual coding artists that portray the ‘chemotactile’ senses of an octopus. The visuals on display here are only part of an expansive art-and-technology research project. Further, these visuals are not ultimately intended for a human audience. The Interspecies Communication Research Initiative (ISCRI) – a name which refers to both the project and the group themselves – are demo-ing prototypes that will provide the initial attempts to engage the interest of an octopus interlocutor. Over the course of 2020-21, their artistic and technical team have produced artwork for an octopus, who they hope will in return help them create a deviant form of artificial intelligence (AI), by coordinating a new type of multisensory encounter.
ISCRI, a collaboration between 0rphan Drift, a collective exploring the boundaries of machine and human vision, and Etic Lab, a Wales-based digital research and design partnership looking for new ways to engage machine learning, now part of an emerging scene of artists who experiment with thisubiquitous AI technology. These typically multidisciplinary teams of practitioners create through experimentation, centring processes, iteration and outcomes that aren’t predetermined. They seek to produce new knowledge by relinquishing the control conventionally associated with art and computation. Working with this indeterminacy opens up a space for potential knowledge formation, both in the form of optics and data. Most interestingly, teams like ISCRI often build new systems, with the purpose of gathering data and putting it to work in the realm of art-making, a field which has been transformed by the pattern recognition capabilities of these new tools. For ISCRI, the reimagining of how data can be gathered and used gives rise to new modes of communication – and new ways of envisioning our relationship with nonhuman beings.
The Creative AI Lab at Serpentine, a partner on ISCRI, was founded in 2020 to create a research space for practitioners working through emergent concerns in AI aesthetics raised by projects like ISCRI. Creating a research agenda which crosses between King’s College London’s Department of Digital Humanities and Serpentine’s Arts Technologies team, the Creative AI Lab brings knowledge together from different fields and bridges different institutional approaches to research.
My role working across both of these institutions as a PhD researcher at the Lab began a year ago. I work between developing tactics for revealing the institutional and technological ‘back-end’ of AI artworks in galleries (and increasingly elsewhere); and researching how artworks can be used to open up new understandings of machine learning. Part of this is to connect with artists to understand how experimental approaches can aid a broader understanding of machine learning and how its societal usage could develop differently. The Creative AI Lab provides a space for conceptual incubation in order to better understand the infrastructure that is needed to support these complex projects both in the research and development (R&D) phase and in dissemination.
It was in this spirit of exchange that the ISCRI team first met with us at the Creative AI Lab. ISCRI is a project at the beginning of a long journey, but its origins date back to the mid-1990s. The work is driven by Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherjee who first formed their collective practice 0rphan Drift (0D) in 1994. They have been engaging with questions of mechinic intelligence for over twenty years, a timeline that traces the societal transformations of cyberspace from its infancy to its ever present pervasiveness. Robert’s focus on the octopus – ‘a very curious animal’ – comes from a long-term engagement with the species through 0D’s work, previously culminating in their exhibitions If AI were Cephalopod (2019) at Telematic Gallery, San Francisco and the Becoming Octopus Meditations (2020) commissioned by IMT Gallery, London.
Their research emerges against a backdrop of renewed interest in the intellectual lives and possibilities of nonhuman (or to use posthumanist Karen Barard’s term, more-than-human) entities such as animals and machines, specifically the octopus. This animal in particular, with a nervous system located throughout its body rather than centralised in the brain, raises questions concerning where intelligence is located and what we can understand intelligence to be. At the same time, the use of machine learning (the now predominant form of AI) in animal communication is becoming more widespread, for example, in attempts to decode the sonic exchanges of whales. So far however these capabilities have been employed primarily as a way of interpreting, rather than facilitating, a conversation with nonhuman persons.
This fascination with facilitating a conversation between nonhuman entities, like an octopus and AI, where human legibility is not an ultimate goal, has led directly to the formation of ISCRI. Given the complexity of the project, a collective working group with various expertise is necessary. In this case, 0D sought the help of technologists at Etic Lab and various marine biology and animal communication experts from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, a research institute in Naples, and Aberystwyth University).
Etic Lab often work outside of the arts space, they’re driven by an acute understanding of the tech sector. Elsewhere their projects range from using AI to democratise access to affordable legal advice, to engineering new approaches to data privacy for external organisations. 0D and Etic came together to form a collaboration between already collaborative teams. Each collective brings their own capabilities and expertise, taking what Stephanie Moran, Associate Partner at Etic, calls a ‘whole-systems approach’ to the production of this octopus-AI encounter.
The fundamental purpose of this octopus ↔ AI encounter is to bring an octopus into reciprocal communication with a machine learning system via its environment and on its own terms. ISCRI will invite the octopus to engage with a range of intriguing stimuli, hoping as facilitators to ‘triangulate a conversation’ between octopus and mechanic intelligences, as Moran puts it.
The encounter will take place in a mesocosm, an artificial re-creation of the octopus’ marine habitat, at Aberystwyth University. This phase of the project will be facilitated and overseen by marine biologists with expertise in the care of octopuses.  A video stream, created for the octopus by 0D, will be gently presented as a curiosity for the octopus to engage with as – or if – it wishes. For Mukherjee of 0D, the mesocosm is a place where the natural and the cultural come together: ‘the mesocosm is like an exhibition, and a habitat for the octopus […] we have to make this environment, and so […] those objects are, in a sense, cultural objects’. In discussing the artworks that 0D will provide as gestures to the octopus, Mukherjee said, ‘we’re inviting this creature to interact with them, to understand if there’s some sort of response, which is exactly what an artwork does for humans’. For this purpose ISCRI enlisted computational artists Megan Bagshaw, Duncan Paterson and George Simms, to produce an extensive corpus of fluid visual materials in the hope of gaining the octopus’ interest. Visual-ecological research informs what is offered to the octopus: Mukherjee points out that, ‘one of the other reasons why we’re thinking about pattern so much is that it is a language, like all pattern is a form of language […] you can see structure, but not understand it. I think it’s very different than total chaos’. The search for patterns is a practice common to both artists and technologists, and within ISCRI the range of methods employed are as intriguing for their differences as they are for their similarities.
Etic have been developing a new way to technologically realise this theoretical approach. They plan to use a specific form of machine learning – unsupervised, reinforcement learning. The idea is not to translate octopus communications, but to try and learn something about what octopus communication is. For Etic Lab partner Alex Hogan, their system differs from conventional machine learning in its aim “to make something else [something non-human, like the octopus] the supervisor, [and for that] ‘something else’ to define what system equilibrium would look like”. Rather than being trained in advance on a pre-prepared dataset, reinforcement learning is used to find higher-dimensional patterns in the octopus’ response that humans might not be able to detect. Relinquishing control to the octopus puts the machine learning system more directly into conversation with the octopus, turning the humans who designed the system into observers.
‘Machine learning looks for patterns’ explains Moran, ‘So it’s about pattern recognition. But most of what people think of as machine learning is where it’s been trained on something specific, like pictures of cats or dogs [with the goal of better identifying cats or dogs in the future]. So it’s trying to learn something that you’ve told it to learn. But with reinforcement learning, it’s not trained on something, it looks at what’s there and finds patterns in it’. Instead, the machine learning system is building its own logic of the sensory data it collects, as a set of statistics that the encounter will output.
Unlike conventional scientific experiments that would focus specifically on a single variable, such as how the octopus might respond to a single sensory input like light, ISCRI’s interdisciplinary approach proposes that since the octopus’ distinctive intellect is so radically different from our own, the only viable approach is to bring all the senses together. Moran goes on, ‘the holistic data from all of the different senses will be pooled into the machine learning algorithm, and it will find the patterns in it, rather than us telling it [what] to look for’.
This unsupervised approach affords the machine learning system greater agency to detect patterns across and between multiple kinds of sensory inputs, necessary because, as Hogan points out, we have to accept that ‘we [humans in general] are so badly equipped to understand what communication is that we wouldn’t see it’, in part because the ML system will need to find patterns across ‘the rate of change of the rate of change’ in the data they record. In this respect, the system is intended to establish not just how to communicate with the octopus, but what that communication is in the first place. As such, the AI might better able to communicate with the octopus than we are – though we may not fully understand that communication.
The goal is to eventually work with this AI system, having been trained by the octopus, to produce artwork for an exhibition intended for humans. This exhibition, as Roberts puts it, ‘through the AI’s modulating presence that will control a multisensory environment, will offer audiences some insight into what an AI trained by a nonhuman intelligence’ might be able to elicit – in this way producing a ‘second mesocosm’ for humans to experience. This nonhuman machine learning model is intended to offer a counterpoint to the AI developed in market-driven contexts where the primary metric is often an uncritical conception of ‘optimisation’.
In 1995, as 0D were starting out with their collective practice, theorist Kodwo Eshun wrote that through their work they ‘elaborate how digital technology is disassembling the human security system of the body’. ISCRI marks a culmination of their work, a moment in which 0D’s boundaries become porous. Collaboration is a transformative process for those involved, and throughout the R&D phase of this project the traditional roles of the artist and technician have a source of critical discussion and feedback.
Perhaps all art-making is really encounter-making, but ISCRI’s blueprint opens up new possibilities for bringing together beings whose worlds have until now been considered too incompatible. Duncan Paterson of 0D notes that ‘the octopus is at one with its environment in ways we can’t imagine’. The blurring of individual and environment is one of the key lessons we can learn from ISCRI, because perhaps it’s as true for humans as it is for cephalopods. Tthe difference between communication and behavioural observation collapses once you take away the distinction between an individual and its environment. It’s in the process of finding new ways to mediate that such realisations become possible.
Alasdair Milne is a PhD researcher with Serpentine’s Creative AI Lab and the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. His work focuses on the collaborations and systems which emerge around new technologies.
 Marine Biologists have very stringent ethics around working with octopuses, under the 2010 EU Directive (Directive 2010/63/EU) that included live cephalopods. Aberystwyth University holds a licence giving them ethical approval to keep octopuses under the terms of this directive. (this paper gives an overview: https://scielosp.org/pdf/aiss/2015.v51n4/267-269/en). A mesocosm is defined as an ‘ocean-like environment’, although interpretations of this vary. Graziano Fiorito at the Stazione Zoological Napoli, a key thinker for this project, has written extensively on mesocosms and octopus ethics.