Google and Cossette use AI to create ‘new work’ from Douglas Coupland

Who: Google Canada, Douglas Coupland and Cossette, working with OPC Films for production (Charlie Tyrell directing), Alter Ego, Wingman, Nice Shoes for animation and Vapor Music.

What: “Slogans for the Class of 2030,” a new informational campaign promoting AI’s usefulness as a tool capable of facilitating and/or enhancing the arts. Cossette, Google and Coupland drew inspiration from the author’s famous 148 slogans for the 21st Century to generate new slogans created using AI. 

When & Where: The campaign is highlighted by a short film from Cossette that was featured on the Google Canada home page on June 30 and is currently housed on the Google Arts and Culture page (see it below). Digital out-of-home screens in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto will also display some of the AI-produced slogans until November.

Why: Chris Henry, product marketing manager at Google Canada, said the ultimate goal is promoting a conversation around AI while better acquainting young people with the idea that AI doesn’t have to be a strictly scientific pursuit.

“The perception of what AI is may not always be inspiring to young people and may not feel accessible, so if you can see it applied to art, or music, or poetry, it can inspire interest and ultimately encourage them to think about it as a path they can go down,” he said.

AI and machine-learning is a core component of Google’s business, and the company has made considerable investments in the space in Canada, including the Vector Institute in Toronto, Mila in Montreal and Amii in Edmonton. “It’s a huge focus for our company,” said Henry. “And we hire a lot of people in the space too, so we want to get some great young minds going into the field.”

It also feels a bit like an attempt at a brand makeover for AI, which has received some “bad press” over the years—with countless predictions (and depictions) of computer based super-intelligence destroying humanity.

“A lot of us have grown up feeling a certain way about AI,” says the narrator in the video featuring a young girl. “Celeste and the class of 2030 will think about it totally differently.”

Google’s (and Coupland’s) premise, is that AI has the potential to uplift and enlighten.

“AI (or machine learning) receives an unusual amount of paranoia from people who would probably be fascinated, if they just looked at it a bit further,” said Coupland in a release. “It’s not 1984. It’s not a zombie apocalypse. It’s just taking what seems like noise and locating signals within it. It’s not an alien intelligence… it’s just new ways of looking at ourselves. In my case the noise was a million words reprocessed and reassembled to create something uncannily new.”

How: The creative approach stems from what Cossette creative director Jacob Greer described as a “dumb joke.” Working from a brief from Google to change the perception of AI, the creative team at one point hit on the idea of using acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and possibly repurposing his name to have it represent A.I. (get it?)

From there, the discussion turned to finding a Canadian artist and have the concept of AI-powered art be a little less abstract. Coupland was a natural choice because of the slogans he created between 2011 and 2014, which featured messages like “You must choose between oxygen or wealth,” “Scientists will say anything to get more funding” and “It’s all happening way faster than we thought.”

Coupland met with the creative team in Toronto for a brainstorming session that included Google’s Toronto-based AI researcher Nick Frosst, a specialist in machine learning and neural networks (and a singer for Good Kid, a Toronto band that plays what he describes as “fast-paced good time music”).

To demonstrate the enormous capacity of AI to learn and create, Frosst took Coupland’s social posts and his entire published output—more than one million words spanning 13 novels, two short story collections, seven non-fiction books as well as works for films and TV—and fed it all into an AI-powered language learning algorithm.

The machine subsequently spat out some 200 pages of phrases and language that Greer described as “the most amazing, confusing, weird and broken Douglas Coupland book you might ever read.” Coupland likened it to characters from one of his novels talking to characters from another.

The author then picked out concepts and phrases that appealed to him, and they were fed back into the machine to be further refined. “It was a little bit like finding a very artistic needle in a very fancy haystack,” said Greer. The final result is 25 phrases representative of Coupland’s writing style, such as “I’m going to take my dream life and make it a living,” and “All of us have been given the task of generating a new, larger and more complex version of ourselves.”

What constitutes success for this program: Henry said that Google will monitor traditional advertising metrics like engagement and social shares, but there is also a less quantifiable objective of sparking conversations around AI, inspiring students to ask questions of teachers and professors and encouraging more artists to use AI and machine-learning in their work.

And we quote: “Culture is filled with things that make A.I. and machine-learning look scary… but there’s not a lot of stuff that shows its potential. The purpose is to really show that if we embrace it in the right way, it can have a huge impact. It’s a rare, unique and important project. And all that aside, just getting to hang out and work with Douglas Coupland is not so bad either.” — Jacob Greer, creative director, Cossette

Chris Powell