When it comes to the issue of growing concern about robots and artificial intelligence (AI) entering the workforce and other areas of life that rely on human labor, there is a range of opinions. One European startup is pushing the boundaries of these questions in interesting and unique ways.
The Dutch-based organization known as the Institute of Human Obsolescence (IoHO) (it’s difficult for one to decide from the name whether they have a defeatist, or simply realistic, approach to this issue) has taken a proactive approach which essentially involves mining human capital—much like bitcoins—for use in the future. For the past two years since its founding in 2015, it has been involved with several research and art projects that are centered around the important links between human capital and biological labor and data-production labor.
Through their approach—both qualitative and quantitative—they have been able to carry out some unique projects, such as the one where they were able to mine cryptocurrency via a body suit that collects excess human body heat.
The IoHO-created suit stores the body heat thanks to thermoelectric generators, and afterwards converts it into usable electricity:
• A total of 37 workers were involved in the project, expending combined value of 212 work hours.
• The total human harvest was converted to 127,210 milliwatts of electricity, which was used towards mining close to 17,000 cryptocurrency coins.
• As for the division of earnings, the workers received 80 percent, while IoHO claimed the remaining 20 percent.
IoHO founder Manuel Beltrán explains the thinking behind the project: “I think art is able to explain abstract things and through art, you are also able to trigger something. With this project I want to generate questions or sparks.”
Another project takes the issue of profit based on generated data head-on, with corporate giants like Google and Facebook as the focus. The aim, of creating a fairer distribution of profits between companies and data labor, sparked the creation of their ‘Data Basic Income' system: there is an equitable exchange of money for data. Another interesting aspect is that in place of the bodysuit, IoHO collects participants' finger movements via a movement sensor, labor, or even a choreography, that it deems as being worth money. About the bottom line of this concept: “Now we give our data voluntarily and free to companies such as Facebook and Google, why not benefit from it?” shared Beltrán.
Ironically, even the artists involved in the project could not completely understand the direct link between the harvesting of human capital and money generation: “We ask ourselves throughout this session where the moment is that our automated habits become choreography and when this choreography becomes a form of labor.”
Despite this confusion, Beltrán’s idea is to use art as a creative and alternative means of understanding people’s thinking about the future impact of AI and robots: “I met a lot of people who have pessimistic feelings about the future. Politics are out of control and we have no say. We are ruled by algorithms which we don’t even understand. We don’t know whom to fight and how we feel. Maybe art can help us to imagine and to start the fight.”