Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter
Selections and Awards
A prologue to a timely conversation on AI’s biggest promises and pitfalls. Lured by the possibilities of an emulation of one of today’s most famous minds, we meet and engage with CHOMSKY_AI, an entity under construction. Renowned thinker Noam Chomsky has devoted his career to studying the mind. Drawing from the arsenal of digital traces he’s left behind, CHOMSKY_AI challenges us to ponder: What exactly are we hoping to replicate? And what are we leaving behind?
Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter will be presented at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – New Frontier from January 23 to February 2, 2020.
New Frontier at the Ray
1768 Park Avenue
Park City, UT
Explore the potential and limitations of AI with a VR experience that brings you face to face with CHOMSKY_AI, an entity built from the digital traces of renowned thinker Noam Chomsky.
Technology and User Experience
Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere—from the photo enhancer in your smartphone to Alexa, the virtual assistant in your kitchen. But what is AI? Aside from the constant promises and expectations of a better future, what does it mean to try to emulate human intelligence? The National Film Board of Canada, Schnellebuntebilder and EyeSteelFilm bring you Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter, a 10-minute prologue to a VR experience that lifts the curtain on machine intelligence and lets you peek inside.
The AI gold rush is steadily gaining ground in health care, business, education and almost every facet of our lives. But as big companies race to build machines that promise to “think like humans,” the technology itself remains opaque, hyped up and mythologized. We think we know AI, but it feels out of reach. This project seeks to raise AI literacy by informing us about its potential and limitations, all while reminding us of what’s special about human intelligence.
Chomsky vs. Chomsky aims to provide a playful and introspective interaction rather than an intellectual experience. Guided by no other than CHOMSKY_AI, our virtual host built from digital traces of Noam Chomsky, we’re invited to think about the quest for AI—what we’re told it can do and, perhaps above all, what we want it to be.
Noam Chomsky is a man who wears many hats: linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, social critic and political activist. Featured in thousands of videos, pictures and recordings on the Internet, he is one of the most digitized living intellectuals. But Chomsky has also devoted his entire life to understanding the human mind, making him a perfect guide for this journey.
Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter is directed by Sandra Rodriguez and produced by the NFB, Schnellebuntebilder and EyeSteelFilm. Michael Burk from Schnellebuntebilder and Kling Klang Klong share the visual and sound design credit. Cindy Bishop from M.I.T. Media Lab serves as technology lead and Guillaume Petitclair and Olivier Blais from MOOV.AI are the AI leads.
Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter is an immersive experience.
In designing it, the team used different AI systems, which were inspired by the tools gaining popularity in our everyday life. One such example is a simple chatbot, which allows you to “talk” to the AI system using speech-to-text technology. The reverse technology is used to allow CHOMSKY_AI to respond, combined with deepfake voice creation. There is also a tool for intent analysis, which allows the system to get an idea of what you’re asking about—whether it’s a question, a joke, or what subject it’s about. The team also designed a more complex conversational AI system, which learns and gets better as more information is fed to it. This is a system under development, and users help train it.
Using a VR headset, audiences will be free to ask questions, interact and speak with CHOMSKY_AI, following the common conventions of conversation. As in any real conversation, visitors may choose to move on to different subjects, while CHOMSKY_AI prefers to finish his thoughts on the current one. Although the conversation is free to go in any direction, it is still guided. Built from the arsenal of existing online material, the project demonstrates that no matter what we want to believe, all AI systems are still very much structured.
While Noam Chomsky was informed of the project, this experience was created strictly from material found online. In fact, one of the things that makes this so interesting is that Chomsky himself would likely disagree with the idea of being turned into an AI experience. Though this provides for much irony, it also ensures the project will stay true to its goal, as the material used critically assesses the way we, as a society, seem obsessed with using digital traces to emulate the human mind.
The user experience for this project is driven by conversation, so sound plays a crucial role. In speaking to CHOMSKY_AI, voice is integrated as an input into the system. Words used and their tonality affect the virtual world.
Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter is a prologue—a conversation starter. It was created using 4V (or vvvv), a platform that enables quick prototyping and developing. It’s a toolkit that enables general applications of real-time video synthesis and programming, allowing for the creation of an environment that can be used in VR. It facilitates the intersection of strong storytelling with interactive and real-time data-flow analysis, as well as the visual programming of audio and video.
AI is talked about everywhere. Hailed as an inevitable way of the future, the term encompasses a vast array of technology, some of it already part of our lives: from our relationships to Siri, to Alexa, to self-parking cars.
Behind the promises and expectations for AI, there is also much bluffing (and debate) about what it really is, and what it can or could do in the near future. On the one hand, this blurriness means opportunities: everything is open! On the other, we can already point fingers at questionable practices, like discriminatory surveillance and biased algorithms, and deepfake videos of politicians. How can we understand enough about AI to make sure we take part in steering its future?
Now is the time to have this conversation. After all, it’s the role of artists to question pragmatic and economic-driven futures. There is no better way to question a technology than by playing, disrupting and creating with it.
A general promise behind the latest developments in artificial intelligence is that it can emulate human behaviour. Many AI projects even go as far as to recreate famous people from the past—like an artificial Dali, or an AI-recreated Audrey Hepburn, or JFK and Nixon delivering deepfake speeches.
Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter lures visitors with a similar promise. What if we could replicate one of today’s most famous minds? What if you could meet and engage with CHOMSKY_AI?
Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist and scientist, has devoted his entire life to understanding the way our minds work. Known for his political statements, theories on intelligence, and hundreds of books and speeches, he has been interviewed on every subject over a period spanning almost 60 years, making him one of the most recorded and digitized living intellectuals. The pool of data we can use to create an AI system is thus extensive. What’s more, Chomsky is also known for his theory of natural language, an inspiration for “natural language processing” (an important backbone of AI). He becomes a perfect case-study and a perfect guide to help demystify AI.
But here’s the catch. Chomsky himself is skeptical of artificial intelligence. As he so often repeats, we know very little about how our minds work. So what exactly are we trying to replicate with AI?
Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter invites visitors to enter a virtual world, where we engage and interact with an AI system still under construction. CHOMSKY_AI is not a copy. It learns from a corpus of Noam Chomsky’s critical reflections. It builds and evolves from interactions, and constantly questions what it means for itself to exist. In an ironic twist, CHOMSKY_AI challenges us to consider: In this race to create machines that emulate who we are, what are the metaphors we’re willing to accept for ourselves? And what are we leaving behind?
Creator and Producer
Sandra Rodriguez is a creative director, filmmaker and sociologist of media technologies. During her 16-year career she has written, directed and produced documentaries, webdocs and, recently, VR/XR (virtual reality, extended reality) projects, garnering multiple awards, including a Peabody and a prestigious Golden Nica prize from the Ars Electronica media institute (2019). She has worked as creative director and UX (user experience) design consultant for the United Nations, other public and private media corporations, and game design studios. Fascinated by the platforms and tools we have created to share stories, she focuses on exploring emergent technology and tech disruption for social change. She has been invited to present and mentor in high-visibility events, including the Cannes Film Festival, the World Economic Forum in Davos, South by Southwest (SXSW), the Facebook/Oculus Education project, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the Phi Centre in Montreal, Sheffield Doc/Fest, the Venice Film Festival, DOK Neuland Leipzig, the Taiwan and Busan film festivals, the Canadian Screen Awards, the Frontières IA conference, and more. Rodriguez was recently head of the Creative Reality Lab at EyeSteelFilm, where she explored XR creation (Deprogrammed, Big Picture VR, ManicVR, Chomsky vs. Chomsky). A visiting scholar and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she also currently leads Hacking XR, MIT’s very first class in immersive media creation. Her new project, Chomsky vs. Chomsky, strikes sparks at the crossroads of artificial intelligence, immersive media and human creativity.
Lead Designer (Schnellebuntebilder)
Michael Burk is an interaction designer and media artist. Since graduating from the Berlin University of the Arts, he has created pieces that range from conceptual works in the spirit of critical and speculative design to interactive environments that blur the boundaries between the virtual and the physical. In 2015 he joined schnellbuntebilder, a studio for animation and interactive media; his work as a designer and programmer includes implementing media projects and creating commissioned works of art for museums, exhibitions, and commercial customers. Michael’s focus is on “creative coding,” a central part of the design process, and on agile design from conception to implementation.
Cindy Sherman Bishop is an interactive multimedia artist and creative coder. She designs and builds interactive installations and apps for galleries, museums, and corporations, while continuing to make good old-fashioned tangible art. Working at the intersection of technology and art, she looks for ways to pull the nuances of analog creation into the digital world —and vice versa. In her current position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Civic Media, her focus is on creating tools and provocations in creative civic technology, using virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) and artificial intelligence. Among her primary tools and projects at MIT are VRDoodler, a web-based 3D drawing and storytelling platform; MediaCloud; creative civic AR; and media-image analysis. Primary recent provocations include Rockstar-ai.com, AR protests, Natural Networks, FlatMeMoji, and most recently, Chomsky vs. Chomsky. The disturbing question of whether digital re-creations are merely hollow, shallow imitations of the rich and fascinating world around us is a frequent preoccupation for Sherman Bishop.
AI Lead (Moov AI)
Guillaume Petitclerc is a seasoned digital marketing expert and team coach. As marketing director of Sharegate (GSoft) and Urban Turtle (Pyxis Technologies), he managed marketing strategies for products that went on to achieve more than $80 million in annual recurring revenue. He has also worked as a consultant for numerous companies, helping them improve their digital marketing, find the right traction channels and build successful marketing teams.
AI Lead (Moov AI)
Olivier Blais is a data scientist whose principal expertise is in cutting-edge AI and machine learning. As a team leader he has supported the digital transformation of many companies, implementing projects and developing data culture for a range of corporations, including Pratt & Whitney Canada, L’Oréal, and GSoft. He is also co-author of a patent for an advanced algorithm that evaluates the credit-worthiness of borrowers. Olivier is a laureate of the prestigious “30/30” Infopresse prize (2019).
kling klang klong
Music and Sound Design
kling klang klong
Kling klang klong is a Berlin-based studio that specializes in designing sound, music and acoustic narratives. Their pioneering acoustic works explore the intersection of science, art and communication. Whether in real spaces or virtual environments, the studio treats the visitor like an active participant in an interplay with organic sound environments. The studio team consists of composers, sound designers, producers, programmers, scientists and creative thinkers. Valuing the emotional impact of sound, they invest their competencies in order to have a stimulating and sharpening effect on the spectator’s own perceptions and mind. Their goal is to help foster social sensitivity, emotional intelligence and thoughtful interaction in society.
Sebastian Huber is the co-founder of schnellbuntebilder, a studio that explores the creative tension between media design and media art. In addition to his work as a designer implementing numerous museum exhibitions, immersive installations and audiovisual performance pieces, Sebastian develops software to meet the different requirements of very diverse projects. This use of software as a creative tool allows the team to create surprising and novel visual worlds, experiences, and types of interaction.
As an advocate of the open-source principle, Sebastian participates in various freely distributed projects and is strongly networked in the global scene of creative programming.
Since 2011, Sebastian has taught courses at Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle and the Technische Hochschule Brandenburg, and has also held various free workshops, mostly in the context of media arts festivals.
Marie-Pier Gauthier is a producer at the NFB’s Montreal Interactive Studio and has been contributing to this rich narrative laboratory for the past eight years. Whether it’s digital creation on mobile phones or on the web, interactive installations or virtual or augmented reality projects, she supervises the execution of projects by innovative creators working at the crossroads of different disciplines. She produces projects using a range of storytelling tools, including social networks, code, design, artificial intelligence, and conversational robots. With degrees in journalism and interactive production, Marie-Pier has collaborated on more than 100 interactive works (including The Enemy, Do Not Track, and Way to Go) which have received more than 100 awards in Canada and abroad. Marie-Pier is the first woman to occupy the role of producer at the Interactive Studio.
Executive Producer (EyeSteelFilm)
Bob Moore is Co-President and Creative Producer at EyeSteelFilm in Montreal, where he has produced over 25 feature documentaries since 2008, including Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009), Forest of the Dancing Spirits (Linda Vastrik, 2013), I Am The Blues (Daniel Cross, 2015), Let There Be Light (Mila Aung-Thwin, 2017) and Tokyo Idols (Kyoko Miyake, 2017). Along with his talented partners and collaborators, he has been the recipient of more than 100 international awards, including Emmys, Golden Horses, Canadian Screen Awards, and festival grand jury prizes. Bob also oversees EyeSteelFilm’s dedicated theatrical distribution company and Creative Reality Lab, which explores meaningful interactive storytelling. He was the subject of a Producer’s Spotlight at the Cannes Marché du Film in 2017, regularly consults with national and international film organizations, and enjoys working with and mentoring emerging filmmakers.
Executive Producer (NFB)
As an Executive Producer, Louis-Richard works at the converging point between documentary and technology and is involved in projects where interactivity helps to explain phenomena that affect individuals and societies. Trained in political science, he veered into radio and architecture before collaborating on the multi-platform media Bandeapart.fm and the creation of digital journalism units at Radio-Canada. His recent productions explore mobile experiences and immersive environments in virtual reality.
Executive Producer (NFB)
Photo : Karim Ben Khelifa
After several years of contorting both words and ideas through the study of philosophy, literature and death metal, Hugues Sweeney became interested in stories and the opportunities that technology offers to tell them. He first worked in new media at Radio-Canada, then as head of Bande à part and Espace musique, before joining the National Film Board of Canada in 2009 as executive producer dedicated to interactive works. Whether experimenting with the grammar of interaction, with sound creation or generative art, NFB Interactive Studio projects have received numerous international awards, including honours from SXSW and the Japan Media Arts festival, a Boomerang, and a FIPA d’or, as well as Digital Emmy, IDFA, and Gémeaux nominations.
Executive Producer (Schnellebuntebilder)
Michaela Pnacekova (born in Slovakia) is an interactive creator-producer and a Ph.D. candidate at York University. Her focus is on the ways new media influence the real through interaction with algorithmic processes and artificial intelligence. Until May 2019 she was head of the Kloos & Co. Medien documentary film production subsidiary in Leipzig, Germany, where she produced documentaries and interactive projects. The documentary Waterproof by Daniela König premiered at DOK Leipzig 2019 (where it received the EWA Award 2017) and IDFA 2019. In 2017, Pnacekova created and produced her first interactive app, Pre-Crime Calculator, as a marketing tool for the launch of the documentary film Pre-Crime. Her first feature-length documentary project as a producer, Border Cut by Igor Chojna, received Special Mention for the Bosch Stiftung East European Co-Production Prize 2014, premiering at the Warsaw Film Festival in 2018; she also worked as production coordinator on the German documentary Last Men in Aleppo, which was shown at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Her first VR project as co-author, director and producer was A Symphony of Noise, which was shown at Reeperbahn Festival (Hamburg) and the IDFA Doc Lab Competition for Immersive Non-Fiction 2019 (Amsterdam). Before she entered the new-media field, she worked for several film organizations in Europe: the Berlin Film Festival, the Czech queer film festival Mezipatra, FilmFestival Cottbus (Germany), and NISI MASA, the European Network of Young Cinema. Pnacekova is an alumna of Ex Oriente Workshop 2014 (Prague), Maia Workshop 2014 (Italy), Doc Tank 2017 (Brooklyn, NY), and the id (interactive documentary) workshop at Visions du Reél 2017 (Switzerland), and she was an !F Lab Prototype Booster 2017 (Europe, Canada, other countries).
Sandra Rodriguez (EyeSteelFilm)
Sebastian Huber (Schnellebuntebilder)
Marie-Pier Gauthier (NFB)
Michael Burk (Schnellebuntebilder)
Guillaume Petitclerc (Moov AI)
Olivier Blais (Moov AI)
Music and Sound Design
kling klang klong
Bob Moore (EyeSteelFilm)
Mila Aung-Thwin (EyeSteelFilm)
Daniel Cross (EyeSteelFilm)
Louis-Richard Tremblay (NFB)
Hugues Sweeney (NFB)
Michaela Pnacekova (Schnellebuntebilder)
Supported in part by Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab Programs with a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Incubated at the MIT Open Documentary Lab.
Funded by Canada-Germany Digital Media Incentive.
About the NFB
The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, creating groundbreaking interactive documentaries and animation, mobile content, installations and participatory experiences. NFB interactive productions and digital platforms have won 100 awards, including 21 Webbys. To access this award-winning content and discover the work of NFB creators, visit NFB.ca, download its apps for mobile devices or visit NFB Pause.
Founded in 2011, schnellebuntebilder is a collaboration between Johannes Timpernagel, Robert Pohle, Sebastian Huber, Michael Burk, Ann-Katrin Krenz and Felix Worseck to develop and create multimedia design and digital art. They work with curators, agents, musicians and artists to create animated explainer films, generative visualizations, audiovisual performances, immersive installations and interactive exhibits.
Daniel Cross spent six years making his first film, THE STREET (1997). The arduous production process alternated between filming on Montreal’s gritty streets with the local homeless population, and trying to ‘find’ precious 16mm film (i.e., he had to beg, borrow and steal). As a result, ‘EyeSteelFilm’ was chosen as a company name by founders Daniel and Mila Aung-Thwin, during the making of S.P.I.T. Squeegee Punks in Traffic in 1998. The production of that film involved sharing a camera with homeless Squeegee Punk/co-director Eric “Roach” Denis, setting the tone for the company’s interactive, inclusive direct filmmaking ethos. As EyeSteelFilm began expanding, Bob Moore joined as a partner with a deft focus on international co-producing. Today, EyeSteelFilm looks to work with engaged, like-minded filmmakers from around the world who seek to engage with reality using the language of documentary cinema.