The Inscrutable Oneness of Being: Using Machine Learning on Burning Man

Part of the I, ROBOT series

Have you ever “found yourself” at Burning Man? It’s a cliché, but it’s something people say, right?

I wouldn’t personally go that far, but I have had profound moments there, and elsewhere, that have truly moved my mindset forward. These epiphanies have occurred when I’m both thinking very hard about something while also not really thinking about anything at all. I can only describe these moments as supreme states of flow; points of pure presence when ‘everything clicks’ and an insight reveals itself to me.

A common condition of these experiences is the room to think — and Burning Man has that in spades. Spending days with no specific agenda, with the intent to just be and see what unfolds, is a gift of the playa. What — no structured input? No rules? Nowhere to be and nowhere to go? Crying from joy? Catharsis from sorrow? And, then, from that morass comes profound insights about life and being and truth? Make sense of that, robot overlords!

Since the theme for 2018 is I, Robot, I’ve been trying to imagine the machines in our dusty boots and furry jackets, seeking whatever it is we seek out there — community, conversation, pleasure, purpose, solitude, ourselves… Could they do it? Would we want it? What would it say about our future if we could sit in the Temple in the arms of a non-human creature who understood our pain?

The robot armies are being trained right now. AI is evolving quickly, and robots have already made art, turned paintings into realistic photos, and crafted movies, stories, and the news. They can help us improve our writing and have just outwitted lawyers at their own game.

Robots are even starting to predict what we’ll like in movies and how audiences will engage at certain points in the plot. They do this by studying the story arcs of thousands of films and using machine learning to identify the emotional shifts that are likely to get us laughing or crying. (Related aside: this video of Kurt Vonnegut’s rejected masters thesis on the shape of stories is worth a watch.)

Can you imagine the arcs of the stories at Burning Man — and then feeding those to robots to learn from? Or how about building algorithms around the 10 Principles — a powerful dataset for a better world if there ever was one? What would an AI based upon Civic Responsibility, for example, teach us on playa and off? How fun would it be to go dancing with an entity programmed around Immediacy? And Communal Effort? Yes, more inhumanly strong hands to help, please.

We’ve already discussed how we get the robot overlords that we deserve. But we also know, via our chat with Dr. Christoph Salge, that our future with these new kinds of beings needn’t be under dark skies. Salge’s hopeful approach is about machine learning that allows for empowerment and initiative-taking — that is, creating robot companions that will look out for, not destroy, us.

The idea that AI could be a benevolent, symbiotic force with humans was a new concept for me. Until then, the narrative around AI had always felt so one-sided, so restricting, so inhuman — like it was just a matter of time before the machines overtook us all, erasing our humanity, taking evolution to its cruel next step.

But to think of machines as the connective tissue between humans? Now that’s a future that sounds positively Burning Man-esque. In his recent interview with the Burning Man Philosophical Center, Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier brings up this notion of the “McLuhan Ramp” — inventions that don’t just achieve practical ends but “foster new dimensions of personhood.” For example, “over time, we’ve invented more means to connect with each other, starting with spoken language, then music, photography, cinema, radio, internet, and VR — each of these things opens up a new channel between people,” Lanier said in the podcast.

The exciting thing about thinking this way is that tech becomes a means to an end, and the end is actually about accentuating the best parts of being human — like connection and creativity — much like Burning Man itself does. Lanier points out that you can’t necessarily incorporate more and more tech in your life. It’s just not healthy or possible. You’ll accelerate up the ramp, hit a cliff and die — kind of like how some of us are feeling right now when it comes to what our devices and social media are doing to our relationships, mental health and attention spans.

Instead, what if we were to refactor our design principles for technology and progress to focus on beauty and deep connection? Internet companies are often driven by business models that emphasize exploitation to make money, but internet culture and technical innovation don’t have to be: we can celebrate, promote, and create technology designed around the factors that inspire us, and make exploitation more difficult.  This is how Lanier looks at it, it’s a mission we can support together by building and using such technologies, and I’m in — hook, line, and sinker.

“That is something that can expand boundlessly, that can go on forever,” Lanier explains. “We need to think in terms of the progression of our species; something that doesn’t have an obvious end, like the quest for power. The quest for communication is boundless.”

Using Burning Man as a data collection point, asking “how can we make the experience of life more like this?” might be a useful way to start.

Cover image:  Soma by Flaming Lotus Girls (photo by Steven Fritz)

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is Burning Man Project's Digital Community Manager. She went to Burning Man for the first time in 2006 (seven months pregnant, no less) and immediately wanted to leave. (She didn't know dust storms were a thing.) But 24 hours after that initial shock, she fell in love with it, and it's been a part of her life in big and small ways ever since. On playa, you'll usually find her camping in Kidsville, riding Bahamut the dragon, or hugging a speaker because she loves music so much.

3 Comments on “The Inscrutable Oneness of Being: Using Machine Learning on Burning Man

  • Doug says:

    A beautiful thought. I believe. Tough to immaculate. Inspiring.

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  • Xiola says:

    Mia wrote:
    “But to think of machines as the connective tissue between humans? Now that’s a future that sounds positively Burning Man-esque.”

    You got it right, Mia!

    WE – Burners – can learn to program the robots of the future.

    The marketers are controlling the hype around the words “robot”, “AI” and “Machine Learning”.

    Don’t be fooled: These areas are still in their infancy.

    Fact: There is no such thing as a robot that has artificial intelligence. That is just something you hear about in the movies and through click-bait.

    Robots are not THAT intelligent.
    We still have a long way to go.
    Just try programming a robot to autonomously pick up an object. You’ll be very suprised: It’s not THAT easy.

    Please reach out to your local roboticists – meet them in person and get to know them. You will realize that they are intelligent people inspired and motivated to make the world a better place – not to destroy it.

    The more you understand the technology and see the potential for the “greater good” – you will understand why humanity is naturally pointing itself in this direction.

    Steve Jobs was inspired by how a bicycle enhanced the human capacity to run – but at a faster speed. He recognized that a bicycle is a TOOL that enhances a capacity that humans already have. He saw how computers will be the new tools that would enhance our other natural capabilities as well. And thus, the computer revolution began – and makes the screen where you are reading this text possible.

    Technologists develop these tools – these machines – because we see the potential for something that will enhance what we are already good at.

    Don’t sit there afraid of the technology.

    Please. Go meet a roboticist and ask them what they’re up to.

    The more you interact with these folks the more you will understand and influence the trajectory of the technology.

    Plus you might actually be happily surprised to hear what we’re REALLY doing.

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    • Kevin says:

      Thanks Mia and Xiola for opening the floor for discussion with your words. Thanks for the education. I now understand better that robotics and AI are two fields that to date, have not intersected well. I have seen what robots can do at places like Amazon and manufacturing plants and understand that they do what they are programmed to do, and that they often require tweeking.

      Thanks for enrolling me.

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