The cryptic email that arrived in my inbox last Thursday posed a question both lovely and absurd: Would I pay Zelda monsters in bitcoin for their artwork? This was certainly worth a click.
But the Nonhuman Artist Collective, I soon discovered, was fascinating. It is "an artist collective for computer programs, robots, 'smart objects,' and beyond." The site features 12 limited edition prints, each created on a pen plotter, the designs dictated by the rhythmic movements of enemies in the video game The Legend of Zelda—lines and sharp angles, drawn over and over, in overlapping patterns of orderly chaos.
In other words, the programmed machinations of a nearly thirty-year-old Nintendo game have been repurposed into brand new works of modern art, and are being sold with a cryptocurrency that, in 1986—the year the game was released—few could have scarcely imagined, let alone understood.
That in itself is a cool enough feat. But there's a larger motivation to the site: "Proceeds from sold works go into a cryptocurrency nest egg that nonhuman members will someday own and control."
A GIF of the Pen Plotter printing data fed from a NES emulator. Photo via the artist/nonhumans.net
The idea is that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, robots, computer programs, algorithms and other smart devices will inevitably be granted legal status in society—the sort of status that would allow a nonhuman to hold currency, say, or buy a house. Call it "algorithmic personhood." And just as the nonhumans of tomorrow might drive our cars and make our meals, so too might they opt for creative pursuits.
Nonhumans, then, is a trust fund for the art-making robots of the future, once they gain status in society to work and live like us.
"When you’ve got a distributed network for autonomous smart objects, who is responsible for the behaviour that emerges?" the artist wrote to Motherboard in an email. "Relatedly, with things like deep learning, we’re training algorithms to solve problems in ways that humans don’t even understand. Will we regard these algorithms as natural forces like the weather, or will we find new abstractions of accountability? As we increasingly entangle ourselves with algorithms that humans can’t reason about, could we find utility in decentralized autonomous corporate personhood? Is algorithmic personhood so much stranger a notion than corporate personhood?"
"Some of this sounds like distant sci-fi future fantasy, but one doesn’t have to look farther than black box algotrading to see these issues already at play in today’s landscape," the artist mused, adding later, "Perhaps we can outsource these discussions to algorithms as well."
Human involvement is just a stopgap. The sale of the works is meant to provide a nest egg for a future where algorithms and robots can autonomously create and sell artwork.
It's not clear who's behind the project. Its creator would only cop to being "an artist in the Northeast United States." But given the project's goal, I really wasn't all that surprised—really, kind of glad. "I think it is more interesting for me to remain backgrounded on this project, as the nonhuman artists really deserve the focus," the artist wrote. But, really, who's to say an algorithm isn't already behind the whole thing?
The near-term goal is to build "a small group of trustees"—humans who can shepherd the collective toward its ultimate goal, brokering the sale of new art and setting up new projects as necessary. Fifty-one per cent of the proceeds currently go to the nonhuman fund, while the remaining funds are given to the human trustees, but this is only a temporary measure until the collective can broker its own sales.
"Indeed, human involvement is just a stopgap. The sale of the works is meant to provide a nest egg for a future where algorithms and robots can autonomously create and sell artwork," the artist explained. "The hope is that I recede from the project entirely. With any luck, nonhumans.net will become (or get claimed by) a Decentralized Autonomous Organization. This would allow it to engage the market without any direct human intervention."
(What, exactly, a Decentralized Autonomous Organization is depends on who you talk to, but it essentially boils down to a self-governing, artificially intelligent organization that can operate with minimal human influence, or none at all.)
The HP 7475A Pen Plotter, which creates the printed art. Photo via the artist/nonhumans.net
For the moment, the collective is just the one art-making algorithm—a single computer creating Zelda-drawn art. The game runs inside software that emulates the hardware of a physical Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which enables a user to read the data contained in the game's memory in real time—in this case, the XY coordinates of the enemies on-screen. This data can then be sent to a program that converts XY coordinates into information an HP 7475A Pen Plotter might understand.
In earlier experiments, the artist tried sending the game enemy's movement data into audio workstation software such as Ableton—"it turns out that Zelda monsters are mediocre musicians"—but as visual artists, the results held far more potential.
"I found these early pieces compelling, but believed their talent would be most palpable to audiences if it were physically materialized. Around January of last year, a friend introduced me to pen plotters, and the project instantly fell into place," the artist wrote.
One of twelve algorithmically-drawn artworks up for sale. Photo via the artist/nonhumans.net
Not to mention, achieving this vision will take time. The artist likened the current landscape to the long, slow transition from cave painting to cubism; theoretically, cave painters had all the same material technology to produce such art, but it took, quite literally, thousands of years for the the cultural technology to mature. In a similar vein, algorithms and robots are arguably already executing art today—but for the most part, humans are still required to render those algorithms visible. Nonhumans too may require thousands of years for their own cultural technology to mature.
"Technically, we could give bots personhood today," the artist wrote. But, "If and when this will ever become a valuable legal instrument or cultural technology—if it will ever serve existing power and infrastructure, or emerge in response to it—that is hard to say."