Kissinger wasn’t the only exhibit that made us squirm. Physics Does Not Crash in Soft Time was an installation that invited you to browse the files from the artist’s deceased brother’s hard drive. It was unnerving. I reached for the mouse to scroll through, but I found I couldn’t do it – it seemed too much like an invasion of privacy. After a while, I noticed that nobody in the exhibition seemed willing to open the files either. The questions this exhibit raised about who owns our data when we die and how traces of our lost loved ones can be digitally reserved made me think of Black Mirror again. In “Be Right Back”, a grief-stricken woman buys a clone of her deceased boyfriend with a personality based on his social media data. Of course, we’re still a long way off being able to do this, but “Griefbots” (artificial intelligence modelled on a dead person’s data) are already in development and could revolutionise the way we think about grief and posthumous data.
While many of these installations provoked discomfort, some were surprisingly sweet. The Companion Cat, for example, was a robotic animal designed to promote the mental health benefits of companionship for the elderly and dementia-sufferers. Using technology to alleviate the increasing epidemic of loneliness amongst the ageing population seems like a good idea. However, the implication that robots are increasingly required to offer fellowship to the elderly that other humans fail to provide paints a very sad picture of society. Go hug your grannies, people!
“The implication that robots are increasingly required to offer fellowship to the elderly that other humans fail to provide paints a very sad picture of society”
The strangest experience of all was with The Machine To Be Another, an interactive VR experience to trick your brain that you’d swapped bodies with a partner. My VR headset played the feed from my boyfriend’s camera and vice versa, and by mirroring each other’s movements from different rooms we convinced ourselves we’d swapped bodies. Even stranger was when the panel between us was removed and I was able to walk forward towards my own body, looking down from his slightly taller perspective. Convincing our brains that we’d swapped bodies may just seem like an entertaining illusion, but it’s a technique already being used all over the world to promote empathy by literally allowing you to see from someone else’s perspective. It’s a strange way of trying to make people more understanding of each other across racial, religious, age or gender differences, but I liked the creativity behind it.
As I was leaving the exhibition, I wondered whether I’d approached some of the exhibits too cynically. On the surface, many of the technologies promised a more interconnected and intimate world by seeking to alleviate loneliness, promote empathy and cultivate better relationships. Perhaps my initial association of some of the exhibits with Black Mirror had caused me to see a latent sinister element. Or, maybe we simply have a tendency to distrust new and unfamiliar technologies, a concept that anyone who has ever had to teach a grandparent how to use an iPhone will be familiar with. But whatever our feelings about it, we can’t deny that we live in an era where the word “connection” can just as easily refer to our Wi-Fi as to our relationships. It’s important to think about how intimacy fits into this period of rapid technological advancement, and the Science Gallery’s latest exhibition did an impressive job of exploring these big questions.