Theme 2016:

The sentimental machine

Emotions are a fundamental source of our most personal experiences in the world. Often considered the essence of what it means to be human, to be "yourself", they are a key influence that motivates action and determines interactions with others. For most of the history of science, emotions have eluded empirical study, considered to be too intangible and too subjective. But during the last decades, groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in areas such as experimental psychology, affective neuroscience, artificial intelligence and molecular biology have created a new momentum for research and experimentation, leading to the development of technologies and applications able to measure, interpret and simulate emotions in various ways and for a wide range of purposes.

Based on many years of experimentation and research in the field of affective neuroscience—studying the neural mechanisms of emotions—methods for biometric measurement of emotions have become astonishingly precise and nuanced, resulting in the first applications able to not only tap into but also manipulate human emotions. Initially developed to cure psychological conditions such as autism or depression, the increased understanding of targeted control and regulation of emotional states has quickly led to endeavors to optimize cognitive and emotional stability, performance and abilities through both pharmaceutical but also technical means, such as Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) or Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). 

On the other hand, the emerging field of affective computing—pioneered by MIT media lab faculty’s scientist Rosalind Picard and motivated by the desire to simulate empathic abilities in machines—has introduced methods and technologies for “affective surveillance,” where, through for example the study of faces as an interface of affect, various facial recognition software applications have been developed to detect and read emotions in the human counterpart. Gaining access to our minds and innermost feelings through the gateway of physical expressions, the research on Artificial Intelligence has been able to advance its attempts to create empathic—or rather, empathically acting—computer systems, turning formerly soulless machines into what to us seem caring and sensitive companions.

By way of such biometric measurements and interpretation, computer systems are becoming increasingly capable of reading and also anticipating how and why we act like we do, thereby opening up possibilities of influence and interference with people’s decision making processes. The quality and type of data that can be collected and gathered through such applications and softwares has quickly created a whole new market for apps, devices and applications that turn the newly accessible knowledge into revenue streams.

This new understanding of how and why we feel like we do and how this knowledge can be applied to daily lives is progressively entering our private surroundings and affecting our behaviour on many levels. What are the cultural, social and political implications of these developments? In the age of big data, could gathering affective data on a large scale actually be used to improve our quality of life, or does it only become another tool for discrimination, surveillance and social isolation? What are and can be scenarios in which these new possibilities will be used and implemented for the general good? Perhaps the targeted manipulation and leveling of emotional states will even become necessary to guarantee the continued existence of a human species, in a future marked by overpopulation and environmental disasters? And how can we prepare ourselves for the encounter with a new generation of robots, challenging us in different ways to deal with seemingly emotional companions that behave uncannily close to humans and seem to understand us better than we do ourselves?

Addressing these and other questions, STATE OF EMOTION ­- The Sentimental Machine -  takes on the current state of scientific research and resulting technologies that analyzes, simulates and even taps into human emotions as a starting point of reflection, discussion and experimentation. Topics will range from biological, psychological, and socio-cultural origins of emotions, to the philosophical and socio-political questions arising with the possibilities offered by the development of Emotional Artificial Intelligence (AI) and affective surveillance. The festival program will not only introduce and give an overview of the field, but will also create a platform of common analysis, reflection, speculation and discussion regarding the already existing or possible socio-cultural and socio-political implications and transformations coming along with the newest developments. 

Working in close collaboration with different artistic, scientific and other communities in Berlin and bringing them together with international key figures from the sciences and humanities in the research and reflection on emotions, the STATE Festival 2016 edition will create an transdisciplinary and inclusive platform for presentations, experimentation, encounters, and discussions. A variety of approaches and points of departure in this highly relevant and rapidly progressing field of scientific research will be presented through lectures and panel discussions, art installations and performances, workshops and interactive formats, creating a wide range of possibilities for the visitors and participants to discover, experiment and interact with professionals and creatives from various backgrounds.

Development of theme: Daniela Silvestrin, Lucy Patterson, Christian Rauch