Ai Weiwei asks AI 81 major questions about technology, life and us

In 2011, contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was arrested for 81 days, imprisoned by the Chinese government in Beijing for criticizing the communist regime and surveillance, and defending human rights. His legacy and work often explore such themes, including his widely publicized arrest, highlighting power and humanity.

His latest exhibition is no exception. This time, Ai takes on technology and presents 81 big questions to artificial intelligence systems. In other words: You versus AI.

Ordered by the Cultural Institute of Contemporary Radical Arts (CIRCA), Ai’s questions are projected on billboards in major cities including London, Seoul, Berlin, Lagos, Nairobi and Milan, each showcasing the range of spiritual, personal, broad and intimate questions posed by Ai and his collaborators. Described as “an 81-day quest for enlightenment,” a set of 81 questions will be publicly released daily on significant global hotspotsincluding London’s busy Piccadilly Circus and other busy areas around the world.

A billboard in Seoul featuring a question from Ai Weiwei.

Ai versus AI in Seoul.
Credit: Circa

The questions range from the political (“Is true democracy possible?”, “Are you controlled by the privileged class?”, “Will capitalism ever end?”) to the abstract (“Plants do they have feelings?”, “Why do plants have feelings?” turtles live so long, and do they experience lunar eclipses?”). Then come the essential questions, those which address the foundations of being human: “Does “not knowing” absolve people of guilt?”, “Are you capable of self-destruction?” and “What are the most essential values ​​of human beings? life?”. Topics vary from karma to sex to justice to the idea of ​​time itself.

Most questions seem to be asked OpenAI ChatGPT. CIRCA published the answers on its website as well, so the public can see AI’s answers to the most thoughtful questions. Ai’s own thoughts are displayed alongside AI’s.

Their views, inadvertently, differ. For example, to the question “If an artist is not an activist, can he still be considered an artist?” ”, the two have very opposing points of view. Ai posited that “an artist who is not an activist would undoubtedly be akin to a lifeless entity”, while ChatGPT took a predictable stance: “Yes, an artist can still be considered an artist even if he is not an activist. “.

Loose sheets placed on the ground presenting Ai Weiwei's questions.

Behind the scenes of Ai’s project.
Credit: Circa

Ai also asks about AI itself, talking about the interiority – or lack of interiority – within the machines that are now omnipresent in everyday life: “What is the question you would like to ask humans? “, for example, and “How much energy did you use to answer this question?”.

A billboard in London featuring a question by Ai Weiwei.

Ai versus AI in Piccadilly Circus in London.
Credit: Circa

The project is derived from a set of 172 questions (titled “Tiānwèn” or “Heavenly Questions”) written to the gods by the Chinese poet and aristocrat Qu Yuan, who inscribed his questions on the walls of a temple ago almost 2,300 years old. At the same time, it draws inspiration from the interrogation by authorities that Ai himself faced during his detention. The latter examines who has the power to question.

“This is not about freedom of speech. This is about freedom of questions,” Ai said in a statement. “Everyone has the right to ask questions.”

Each request will be presented on specific dates, from January 11 to March 31. In selected cities, billboards will display Ai’s thoughts at 8:24 p.m. local time every day, displaying the responses of Ai and AI systems in a comparative manner. The nod to the number “24” is also intentional: according to the Chinese zodiac cycle, 2024 is a year of transformation, evolution and change.

The project not only highlights emerging technological systems with a focus on artificial intelligence, but also highlights access to information, the power of questioning and the importance of doing so.

“If humans are ever liberated,” Ai said, “it will be because we ask the right questions, without providing the right answers.”

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