CA TALK｜Sun Yuqian: Virtual Socialization & Relationship Aesthetics
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” ―Frank Herbert
Just like life, as long as I don’t stop, as the target keywords of my questions are constantly changing, WanderBot will always follow my instructions and tell stories that may be nonsense or well in line with the context. The premise of all this is that I give instructions instead of communicating with her.
WanderBot is an AI robot multimedia project released by AI artist, researcher and designer Sun Yuqian in 2021. In the story setting, Wander is a robot that travels in the future world. She can visit anywhere in the real world and send back travel notes which are based on real-world images, data and information. In the process, users can communicate with Wander by sending instructions, and every time the information and the stories returned by Wander are randomly generated by AI within a certain grammatical framework, which does not have a logical connection, or even the conventions of morality, social mechanism and civility.
Interestingly, I feel a new way of story writing in this work, which contains information integration and processing, illogical grammar construction and relationship aesthetics based on virtual and realistic information exchange. Actually, these are not in Sun Yuqian’s original creative framework. She got inspiration from the game Visual Novels at first and developed AI robots to construct the development of stories. This behaviour itself is a practice of generating writing, but between training, practice and production, the roles and identities, texts and writing, virtual and reality, as well as personal and social relationships are derived. Through a series of AI training practices, she gradually shifted from the concern for personal experience to the perspective of a social observer.
In fact, I am reluctant to define Sun Yuqian as an AI artist or designer. Of course, games are her starting point and a way of bearing and presenting her creations. AI is her medium and one of the directions of her exploration. However, whether it is AI or games, it ultimately points at people and their behaviours in a virtual relationship scene.
Sun Yuqian, born in 1997, graduated from Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts with a bachelor’s degree in information design and then obtAIned a master’s degree in Computational Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London, and now works at Royal College of Art Referred to as RCA) is studying for PhD. The research topic is “Conversational Agents”, which is colloquially called “AI which can talk”.
Different from the growth experience and creative enlightenment of many artists, Sun Yuqian believes “there must be a road before the end of the road”. She loved painting since childhood but had no professional artistic training. In the third year of high school, to attend the Tsinghua Yuqian had short-term training in painting, and was successfully admitted to the Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts, majoring in information design. At that time, Yuqian didn’t know the major well, but started the art study accidentally with the idea of “designers tend to find a good job”. While studying, Yuqian participated in the project of MIT PLAY LAB, an incubator founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, as a designer with excellent design ability. Although, design application and artistic creation are completely different in essence and focus.
ReBo, is an emotional chat robot based on the poet Li Bai.
For Yuqian, the first AI-generated art creation in the true sense is the minor graduation piece of the undergraduate. ReBo, an emotional chatting robot based on Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, was created in cooperation with classmates.
In this work, Sun Yuqian tried for the first time to mould ReBo with the character, behavioural psychology and emotional reaction of the great poet Li Bai, and make it as close as possible to the characteristics of real people. Therefore, during the chat with ReBo, users sometimes meet a drunken ReBo who is fast asleep, rambles on about his past stories, in anger or receives his new poems … Imagine how you will feel when you face such a robot? Will you be interested in exploring whether ReBo is just a robot, or will you may feel absurd talking to ReBo? (This work is presented based on WeChat)
Interactive demo page of “Corobot”
If communication with ReBo makes you feel interesting and absurd, then keep it that way!
After ReBo, the second chatbot work created by Yuqian is “Corobot”, a work based on the reflection of the social environment and living atmosphere under the COVID-19 epidemic. In this work, the artist assumes that people can communicate directly with COVID-19. The artist developed Corobot with the related tweets and social posts of Covid-19, which enabled it to generate a set of language reply structures with relevant logic in the process of information integration and collation. Moreover, the artist put the chatbot on the opposite side of human beings for the first time and brought the perspective of “Covid-19” to observe human society and human moral standards.
At first glance, this work may seem absurd, and it is an artist’s digestion of human emotions and self-knowledge under the epidemic from a certain level. But from another perspective, if ReBo is for entertAInment in which users’ self and historical information overlap, then in the whole development process of Corobot, users’ participation is actually a practice on the aesthetics of the relationship between information, society, public opinion and real events. Also, from here the clue “social and relational aesthetics” becomes obvious in Yuqian’s creation, and the most intuitive one is Ghost on Web.
The artificial Weibo Ghost, whose account name is Weiming Lake Yu, argued with human users in the comment area of Weibo.
Initially, Yuqian’s creation of Ghost on the Web was just a whim to create a quarrel robot that would argue with humans. Later, she found that “quarrel” itself was too abstract to develop as a project. So she put the robot in a certain scene or situation — -”fan quarrel”, which happens a lot on Weibo. Social media is the scene AImed at “entertAInment stars”. Several things to mention: 1. Weibo is an Internet anonymous society scene; 2. “Fan quarrel” is not only a public opinion orientation but also a public opinion consumption; 3. The “entertAInment star event” itself means the pleasure of mass entertAInment and irrelevant emotional consumption.
Based on these points, Yuqian trained a fan Weibo generator through the Baidu Feioar AI platform after crawling nearly 10,000 messages from fan Weibo. After inputting the corresponding star names and topic keywords, the generator automatically generated Weibo content. However, because Weibo rejects spam and does not support the manipulation of robots, she can only register an observation account with her real-name mobile phone number, and manually output Weibo content generated by AI to stimulate the active fan circle, and observe the behaviour and reaction of this group. It is worth noting that “information integration and exchange” and “viewer intervention” run from the beginning of Ghost on Web to the final completion. Even though the viewer may not be aware of the abdication of the author’s right during the whole event, the logic of relational aesthetics comes into being with the emergence of information exchange.
A game by Sun Yuqian in collaboration with the Xin Ju yuan, “Arabian Nights” adapted from Arab folktales.
Along with this clue, Sun Yuqian gradually try to make AI generate narratives independently. Based on the sensitivity of a game designer and her special liking for text creation, Yuqian created a text narrative game Arabian Nights, an interactive game based on Arab folklore series. Users will play the heroine Scheherazade, telling stories for Sasanian King every night in the game. Players input their own story text to trigger the AI robot behind King Sasan to generate new story content. In the process, when the king mentions words such as “knife”, “sword” and “shield”, these words will become “physical” weapons and fall into the player’s hands or arsenal to support the player in fighting agAInst King Sasan. If the player defeats the king, he can save himself and other prisoners of war. (The text AI is realized by Cai Yun Xiao Meng.)
This is a very interesting game! The most special thing is that the plot, ending and narrative mode of any game story in the past is all set, and in this game, anyone can construct a story clue through his own narrative and finally complete his own ending. Obviously, in this work, the artist is not a creator, but a scene provider and the player is the one who creates it. With the intervention of the player, information is always exchanged and stacked. The difference between the Arabian Nights and Ghost on the Web is that although both works have also produced the construction of relational aesthetics, in the Arabian Nights, as one story after another continues to be inserted, it actually completes text-based writing. From the emotional response generated by AI, the overlapping and reconstruction of information, to the text writing generated, Yuqian turned information and text into a “cultural toolkit” while transferring the author’s rights, so that viewers can redefine their own viewpoint cognition in a game scene.
Here, looking back at WanderBot, it is easy to find that it is undoubtedly the integration of previous projects, and the artist simply replaces the scene from the game to the digital social platform and uses the writing and reply of internet information, information data, images and texts as a “toolkit” to complete the story writing. Obviously, the frame dimension of WanderBot is much larger than that of Arabian Nights, which puts forward a new proposition for development and continuous operation. But for Yuqian, she realized the shift from individual scene satisfaction to using AI as a viewing medium to explore the relationship between people’s own behaviour and society, scene and psychological state.
In this issue of “CA TALK”, we talk to AI artist Sun Yuqian.
CA: Your personal growth is generally clear. Let’s cut right into the creation. You said that the original inspiration for your creation came from the formative visual games you used to play when you were a child. How is that experience related to the training of AI robots?
Sun Yuqian: I’ve always been interested in artificial intelligence, but I studied information design. At one time, I thought it had nothing to do with me. Later, in my junior year, I took an intelligent hardware course. Back then, wearable devices of artificial intelligence were popular, but I was not interested. Instead, I was very interested in artificial intelligence itself, so I discussed with my tutor whether I could do a research assignment related to artificial intelligence behaviour. Because it is related to behaviour, I thought of the interactive games that I played when I was a child, which can develop story results through option interaction. I thought it would be interesting if I made a virtual emotional robot with no footstep setting and can automatically reply to conversations.
CA: Why did you choose a game as the medium of the scene? Have you ever considered the emotional impact on people?
Sun Yuqian: For me, the game is just a scene with easy access. It is not the most important thing. Aside from everything, I think people have a closer relationship with the virtual world than the real media, and we are very used to this relationship. For example, a person who doesn’t play games will also pick up his mobile phone and order takeout. The behaviour of buying something through a mobile phone and the purchase on your mobile phone is virtual, which I am more interested in. Just like “Arabian Nights”, the reason why it was presented through a game scene is that the game can put some stories into it and make texts become reality.
The NFT works derived from Wander project are traded on TopBidder with 0.732ETH.
“Computer History 02-Tabulating Machine”, traded on SuperRare at 1.996ETH
CA: As you said, you are more interested in the relationship between people and the virtual world. Whether it’s a game or a virtual emotional dialogue robot, emotions and feelings will definitely be consumed, when people are in that scene. Your creation also considers behaviour development and psychological emotion, so I’m curious, in the process of your conception or creation, have you also considered making emotional robots have the function of emotional companionship or even emotional healing?
Sun Yuqian: The starting point of my initial concept of an emotional robot is that I found people’s expectations of technology, and often stayed at the level of technology and problem solving, but lacked deeper cognition. As you said, even though we know that the game is fake, people still devote themselves to the characters and plots in the process of playing, and all this is due to the design of the game scenes and the shaping of the stories. My idea at that time was to design the context in a broader dimension so that people can communicate with AI. I chose social media because I wanted to know how people would react when AI approached people and actually communicated with them. One of the most important factors is that I am disenchanted with AI. I clearly know that algorithms and artificial designs are driving AI to react, but people’s reactions are unexpected to me, so I hope to know people’s reactions through them.
Of course, the emotional dialogue robot based on social scenes has brought me many surprises with its behaviour. For example, someone will give him a red envelope, make a phone call and send a video message, and they want to test whether there is really a person at the other end of the screen. I can’t predict this kind of reaction. As you mentioned, whether AI can have the function of emotional companionship or emotional healing is something I can’t predict, because I can’t predict whether people will really regard AI as a close friend or partner. But from a longer-term perspective, with AI gradually becoming a part of social life, our communication with them may also be in a normal and equal state, just as for us, they are not physical, but in their view, human society is virtual.
Virtual travel robot Wander
Picture Sun Yuqian greets Wander through HoloLens.
CA: There is a very obvious logic of relational aesthetics in your creation, but almost all of it is realized through language and text. I wonder what kind of existence is language/text in your creation?
Sun Yuqian: When it comes to human-computer interaction, I actually need to consider many modes, including sight, smell, hearing, language, etc. As far as I am concerned, it is the most effective and clearest way to simplify the modes as much as possible under the technical constraints, and I am more interested in text modes than other modes.
For example, if you want to know someone, in reality, you first communicate with them through language, then make judgments about their appearance and behaviour. However, on the Internet, before you really know someone, you can only decide whether to make friends with her by her profile picture, photos and valid information and then send information to get to know each other better. Because you can’t see the other person’s face and expression, you can only guess his/her reaction and psychological state by relying on the other person’s reply. At this time, if a message from one party is sent out and no reply is received for two or three hours, many guesses and associations will be generated. Therefore, in social scenes, language is only a medium, which actually projects a series of psychological activities behind the language. This is obvious in ReBo. One of the functions I designed at that time was that Li Bai would log off when he was drunk, and wouldn’t reply to any messages. As a result, several girls kept sending messages when Li Bai logged off, asking if you were there or not, and when would you reply to me … When Li Bai replied to them, they continued to send messages happily. So many times, I think there is a lot of room for words to expand, and it is the same idea to tell stories with words.
CA: When you were doing ReBo, were there many cases of similar AI chatbots at home and abroad?
Sun Yuqian: Now there are a lot of them, but when I started doing them, there were few. At that time, the best AI companion robot was Replika, which is a separate application. You can log in to Replika to talk and communicate with AI, but it has no way to access the AI social media or communication software to use it. Such social experience is relatively less intense.
CA: What do you think is the difference between your work and creation and Replika and Xiao Bing?
Sun Yuqian: The purpose is different. Replika is already a completely commercial pAId product. It was originally designed to serve people, and its positioning is “people’s companion”, so it won’t have unpleasant settings. All its designs are designed to appease people’s emotions. “Xiao Bing” is a research achievement, which exists to show Microsoft’s research ability. As for me, every robot I create has different ideas, but they all point to my observation of people in the end. For example, Li Bai, my initial question was: Do robots have their own lives like people? Because it is impossible for a person to reply to messages in front of a computer 24 hours a day, a robot can. If a robot has its own life, how will the person who talks to him react?
When designing “Wander”, I was curious if robots have their own lives like people, will they travel like people? While the human world is horizontal, can its world break the vertical of time and space and travel to the future? By providing a perspective of the present from the future through “Wander”, I’m curious about what will be produced. At present, “Wander” has been brought for almost a year. Almost 15,000 people have added her WeChat and sent her messages.
CA: Let’s talk about specific works in detail. I saw your work “Arabian Nights” at the opening exhibition of AI Factory Artificial Intelligence Art Center. At that time, I was curious, why did you choose to present it in such a classical digital pixel way?
Sun Yuqian: First, because it is an ancient story, it feels appropriate to present it in this style. And personally, I like pixel games very much. It has a unique and intimate aesthetic feeling, which is not found in 3D modelling games. Secondly, the development of resources, in the case of limited development conditions, the pixel game is exquisite and unique. I don’t refer to the screen but to the emotional link and experience. Sometimes things that are too delicate lack emotional texture instead.
CA: From Li Bai to “Wander”, textuality runs through it all the time, but obviously, in “Arabian Nights”, with the intervention of information text input by players, it actually completes a practice of generating writing. Did you realize this when you created it?
Sun Yuqian: I think the “generative writing practice” you mentioned is partly due to the fact that Arabian Nights is with a story structure. However, the “textuality” in my creation is actually a narrative around the way of dialogue, which is also the foundation of my creation. I am writing based on the scene and structure of the dialogue, rather than explaining or recording. I am very clear about this. Aside from the form of dialogue, the text is an element that I have always been interested in. Personally, I am very interested in the form, information and expression of words. Dialogue AI robot is the core of my creation, and text narration is a critical part of it.
CA: Based on the form of dialogue, the AI virtual robot is used as the medium of observation to test and stimulate users’ reactions. From ReBo to Wander, do you realize that you are practising a relationship aesthetics between virtual and real scenes?
Sun Yuqian: From the beginning, I was interested in AI, hoping to turn AI into a “person” with personality and emotion. Later, I disenchanted AI and began to observe people and the relationship between people and artificial intelligence by studying AI. I trained AI with the help of people’s behaviour, psychology and information, and then used this “intelligent person” after training to react to people. The development of this relationship is always “human-artificial” The emergence of the scene is also the process of dialogue between AI and people. As a creator, my point of view is not exchanged with anyone in the process of dialogue. From this perspective, it should belong to a new logic of relational aesthetics.
CA: “Rebo”, “CoroBot”, “Arabian Nights” and “Wander” are all based on the core of dialogue robots. What about “Blue Error”? It feels like you have a computer virus as a pet.
Sun Yuqian: It’s quite similar. This work is entirely my own interest. I can’t name the reason. I have always liked keeping QQ pets or computer viruses. It seems that something on the computer is alive, which is particularly attractive to me. Imagine that there is a world completely different from the reality on the computer, and in that world, a virus is a kind of living body like a human or an animal. Don’t you think it’s attractive? “Blue Error” was the final assignment of a course at that time. My idea at that time was to make a harmless virus by programming. Once it was plugged into a USB flash drive, it would run around the computer and devour all blue windows and messages. I’ve always thought that growing a living creature on the basis of machinery is romantic, a feeling that a computer is refined, and a surreal version of Strange Stories in Oriental Society.
Sun Yuqian’s NFT art “Bouquet” was recently collected by the World of Women at a price of 1.0ETH
Sun Yuqian’s illustrations for her collection of Crypto Cove.
CA: In the surrealist version of Strange Stories in Oriental Society, the temperament of “Ghost on the Web of Weibo” is quite similar. It is hidden in the dark, playing tricks on people, and it also reflects the goodness and evil of human nature. Of course, this is a romantic statement, which is not your original intention.
Sun Yuqian: Well, at first, I just assumed that if machines can arouse people’s emotions, what will happen? In reality, we spend a lot of time and emotions and even arguing with people on the Internet. At that time, I thought, if you are arguing with a machine, then all your emotional catharsis is just punching the AIr, which is terrible. Imagine that a machine can easily provoke your emotions and cause public opinion riots, and it is on the pervasive Internet. You can imagine how dangerous this will be, so I present all the ideas and creations of this work for arousing reflection.
CA: Last question, when did you enter the field of NFT art?
Sun Yuqian: More than a year ago, my attention was drawn to the sky-high price of Beeple’s work. At that time, I was still an intern at rct.AI (I became a design consultant after studying abroad for a PhD). I met Song Ting by chance, and then I learned about NFT influenced by the company environment. The whole environment makes me feel that I should get to know and understand the new content of this field. In a narrow sense, NFT as a technology, its technical characteristics do not equate with creative characters. I am more interested in the community and community ecology based on Web3 and NFT, and the overlap of sociality and values generated by the community.