December 8, 2023

Digital Head: the Spirit of our Age

The arresting image below is a piece of technology developed by the Toshiba team at Cambridge university. Its purpose is to provide an under-skeleton which is used to animate a realistic looking face, this is a highly advanced system moving towards a human/computer interface which the team hope will improve education, assist autistic children and generally serve as a useful and novel bit of tech for mass use. It’s worth considering both the image as a symbol for our time and the drive in society and in the sciences for this kind of technology which in part points to interface with AI (the team also work on allowing machines to recognise movement, language and gesture).


Firstly of course there is a general curiosity with scientists and the thrust of scientific research. It is possible for this appetite to out run the capability of a culture/society to provide a proper ethical framework for the discovery or technology to exist or function within, much has been said about advances in biogenetics and artificial intelligence, namely that our enthusiasm and ability to create new and socially unpredictable tools may outweigh our power to bring that ‘thing’ into the territory of meaning/morality/notions of progress. For example the development of human tissues and AI might create a sentient type before society is able to provide laws and codes on how to deal with this let alone a meaningful spiritual or moral code to act as an environment for such novelties to exist without undermining traumatically the existing social order. I asked the technology theorist and writer Tom Chatfield about the themes of this piece,

“it points to an underlying theme of great interest, that of how we make meanings – and how our meanings may be defined as “meaningful” in the sense of sustaining, connecting, robust in the face of the world and each other – more than merely projection or reflex or evasion – something that in its way ties into a central concern of artificial intelligence and automation, that of whether meanings and perceptions distinct from our own may ever be brought into being – and indeed of what new meanings we may make through reflecting ourselves in and through new technologies,”

Chatfield here reminds us how such technology opens new space and allows us pause for thought. This may seem too science fiction influenced so perhaps a better example would be the way technology developed to stop illness in unborn children and technology which aids fertility in parents could be used to eugenic ends to make designer babies for consumer capitalist couples or worse in different social conditions. (Various reports from Pakistan and China indicate that male babies for example are guaranteed by doctors in private clinics) We may also think of the odd effects of the internet, which is changing inadvertently the nature of sexuality via the easy and addictive access to pornography, of course this was not intended, I’m sure Tim Berners-Lee had no interest in that, never the less now we see it clearly, although separating this aspect from the positive uses of the technology would be very difficult if impossible,

“To invent the sailing ship or the steamer is to invent the shipwreck. To invent the train is to invent the rail accident of derailment. To invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway.” (The Original Accident, Cambridge: Polity, 2007, p. 10).

This quote from the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio is prescient, it attempts to show the possible unknowns carried within a technology of course these are not all necessarily bad depending on one’s political stance, for example, Burners-Lee probably also would not have predicted Edward Snowdon or the various democratic/activist applications of his technology. Virilio’s idea of, ‘the integral accident,’ hints at the unpredictable and disruptive possibilities contained within new technologies while he is almost certainly negative about this I feel it is potentially a radical area for exploration.

I wrote to Bjorn Stenger the head of the ‘Zoe Digital Head’ research and put these ideas to him see below,

You mentioned AI (possibly embedded within biological tissue) and creating a _sentient_ being. It may be interesting to think about the definition of ‘sentient’ and what we as humans understand as ‘intelligent’. The term ‘sentient’ by definition means being ‘able to perceive and feel things’. For me there is no question that the ability of machines to perceive is going to improve and in many ways surpass human ability. Think of the ability to process large amounts of text, sound, and images. Or think about sensors beyond the human range of perception (infrared light or ultrasound). These tasks will be much easier for machines than for humans. In the future there will be more and more work on integrating different senses, on including environmental context, and understanding communication – dialogues and building ‘mental models’.

When talking about ‘feeling’ it gets a bit more ambiguous. Clearly a machine cannot feel as such. However, it could be programmed to display the same _behaviour_ as if it felt a certain emotion. To the outside observer there may be little or no difference. It may be similar with people: We believe other people have feelings because we (believe we) have them ourselves. Possibly one of the roles of mirror neurons in the human brain is to promote understanding of others’ expressions and trigger responses such as empathy. If the ‘other’ is sufficiently realistic to trigger this response, our recognition system may be fooled. What is considered ‘intelligent’ behaviour is bound to change in the future. In the past it might have been considered ‘intelligent’ for a machine to play a chess game. It turned out that this was a relatively easy problem since it’s well defined. By looking ahead several moves and possibly using some historic data, computers can now easily beat chess grandmasters. Other seemingly easy problems are much harder, e.g. recognising a cat on a sofa or understanding a conversation over a noisy phone connection. We are now living in times when machines become able to solve these kinds of problems. There has been immense progress recently, but there is still a gap to fill to achieve human-level performance. Basically whenever a task can be clearly defined, there is likely a way to solve this task with a machine. You also wrote about the social impact of technologies (designer babies, internet porn, traffic accidents). That is an interesting area of course. It is difficult to predict impact of technology since it is difficult to predict the way people will use or behave with new technology. This may show more about the facets of human nature than about technology itself. The consequences however, may be amplified through technology. Bjorn Stenger


I sent Bjorn the famous image of the ‘Mechanical Head The Spirit of Our Age’ as an example of where we were as a culture at the beginning of the 20th century wondering what he would make of the symbolic implications of his own work. To fully grasp the meaning of this gesture it would be useful to take a slight detour into the Dada movement and the state of play in Europe in the first half of the last century.

The Dada movement was born out of a bitter disappointment with early 20th century European society and began as a protest against the First World War. The agents of that movement maintained a strong anti-war theme and desired to bring about the end of the bourgeoisie through a reworking of creative processes, which in turn would rework the subjectivity of men and woman,

“We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa” Marcel Janco, artist.

Janco wanted to move away from only using traditional skill the acquisition of which for the Dada movement was a double edged sword as it required a rigid way of thinking and reinforced elitist institutions, he opposed this with what Hans Richter saw as the truly empowering aspect of Dada,

“You all know what Dada is; Dada is what you can make out of yourself,”

The grand narratives which had hitherto guaranteed meaning and provided a sense of purpose for European peoples now began to fracture, it seemed to the Dadaists that all the art, philosophy, politics, and reason of the past had failed to pull man out of the barbaric mire and had only served to create new opportunities for mass killing and general malaise, even science with its detached logic, which was meant to free people from the superstition and xenophobia religion seemed to support had been made a slave to the inevitability of greed and the desire for power. It had failed to rework man, failed to open new spaces for people to inhabit and instead simply provided efficient killing machines and eugenic possibilities.


It’s difficult to fully inhabit this mentality as first you must feel that art can rework man for the better, that the creation and appreciation of it can make us better people, then you must have this conviction destroyed in the most traumatic way, by war and mass killing and worse, the broad acceptance of this from so called rational civilised people. Educated privileged men controlled Europe they were exposed to the highest thinking and the greatest masterpieces of art, the morality and sentiment contained in so many great works illustrated above by Goya’s The Third of May had not undermined the kind of conviction required to order killings and go ‘over the top’ into machine gun fire.

The following clip became popular over the last couple of years it contains a speech from ‘The Great Dictator’ a Chaplin film, the speech also found its way into the song ‘Iron Sky’ by Paolo Nutini, there is a clear appetite for its moving humane message, watch the clip and imagine that you believe without question that those things described will never happen and we will all continually walk into another disaster another bitter defeat.

This I think helps to understand the crack which gave birth to the Dada movement, the lack caused by this insight is surely what the Chapman brothers relive in their practice over and over,

This tension gave birth to the post-modern era and Dadaism seems like the actualisation of postmodernism, at least an actualisation of postmodernism in its radical form, breaking down stale conventions and empowering the disenfranchised with irreverent, whimsical and inconsistent zeal. Despite our modern associations with visual puns and our general ‘at ease’ with surrealism due to animation and advertising, we must struggle to see the Dadaist movement in the context of this impossible tension, rather than, the trite cynicism that post-modernism has solidified into today.

Considering the work of the aforementioned Raoul Hausmann (July 12, 1886 – February 1, 1971) brings us back to our original subject the digital head, Hausmann an Austrian artist and writer created a bitter satire of his wounded countrymen, speaking of his most famous work ‘Mechanical Head’ Hausmann said that the average German,

“has no more capabilities than those which chance has glued on the outside of his skull; his brain remains empty” Raoul Hausmann


Above we see the tragic cost of being subject to chance, for Hausmann a people who were unable to upset the status quo were like a tailors dummy waiting to be carried from one material disaster to another. ‘Mechanical Head’ undermined the idea of the head as a ‘seat of reason’ by presenting a head dominated by external forces, the mechanisms of modern life literally smashed into a block of wood. This presented man not as the autonomous free thinking individual but rather more akin to a piece of driftwood vulnerable to the material disasters that social, market forces throw at him.

This idea also suggests a rethink around western portraiture which is obsessed by the face, the head, since this is where our ‘Cartesian’ self is located. Hausman’s head shows us how utopian the idea of a free thinking individual is since his point is not that we can’t be free thinking but most of us are happy not to be. The head penetrated by brute forces we are summed up by Hausman in the tailor’s dummy so what of the digital head?

“Thank you for bringing Raoul Hausman’s sculpture to my attention. I was not aware of this. There is certainly an interesting connection between the depictions of the human head an all kinds of thought processes. The notion of “free thinking” is another interesting one. There have been some interesting psychophysics experiments recently that seem to point towards the direction that, in some cases at least, free will is an illusion of our conscious self. See

About “Zoe” or “talking heads” in general, it is interesting to think about their embodiment as you described. They can exist purely in digital form and they can be displayed by various means: on a small mobile phone screen, a tablet screen, a large TV display, projected onto a wall or indeed any surface. This means it can even be displayed on a facial shape and give the illusion of an animated body. Some primitive examples are projected animations at some airports (Luton) or entertainment venues (Disneyland). Going all the way to physical embodiment are animatronics and robotics. In this case facial motion id created by mechanical means. However, such physically animated faces (when replicating human expressions such as those by Prof. Ishiguro from Osaka) have so far been stuck in the uncanny valley. This is because in order to create an ‘illusion of emotion’, getting the facial motion right is more important than getting the appearance right. For example, it is easier to connect emotionally with a smooth cartoon animation than with a badly animated photo-realistic model. And getting the motion right is currently a lot easier to do virtually in the computer than physically. The self-preservation instinct (a la HAL in 2001) is something that would have to be programmed in or learned in some way. (One example would be cleaning robots that return to their base in order to re-charge.) Taking it a step further though, the physical interaction with the world is something that might be simulated though, either through physical simulation in a computer, or by automatically learning from observed physical interactions. Bjorn Stenger

This ‘illusion’ (free will) which may be a combination of the drive resulting from a central nervous system and an ‘unconscious mind’ resulting from an entrance into language gives autonomy to animals and people, obviously with people there is a greater emphasis on language. If this could become the focus of research then perhaps we would be pursuing freedom rather than simulacra.

The idea of referring to the notion of free will as an illusion is an interesting trait that in part I think must be connected to the depressing feelings which emerge when people resolve the mystery surrounding the function of something they once found divine or magical at any rate it seems to bring the idea of endless depth and exploration to an end, however that is rather pessimistic angle to take, we have negative associations with the word ‘illusion’ calling free will by this word undermines the idea that people are responsible for their actions in any meaningful way or indeed that we are anything more than deluded matter.

I do not share this insight myself, at the very least man is able to dis-embed himself from his environment and overcome environmental factors. Of course ultimately we may fall foul of short term vices like greed and the desire for power, without our illusions we would still be subject to packs of wolves, diseases, and earthquakes and so on, these issues which wiped out species are far more controllable then they once were and the will to explore and invent is to embrace the illusion of free will and go beyond what is established as possible, those illusions create the space for new things to happen. Bjorn’s words however have given me a lot to deal with and faith in human freedom is difficult to maintain in the face of much human behaviour.

For example while I fully accept the Toshiba teams intentions as totally benign and admit that talking to my computer a la Holly from ‘Red Dwarf’ is a novel and welcome idea. However when I look at the digital head I think of a stripped creature robed of even the physical presence that Hausman’s tailors dummy has and I think of ‘hyper-reality’ the forces of internet pornography, violent images and shopping which obsess so many of us as a depressing bolt-on of the modern world and mass media, we are even still mired in war although its implications are less literal at least for us. For me it’s difficult to get the idea of simulacra out of my mind. Baudrillard believed that social relations were formed by the forms of communication that a society employs,

“Simulation, Baudrillard claims, is the current stage of the simulacrum: all is composed of references with no referents, a hyperreality. Progressing historically from the Renaissance, in which the dominant simulacrum was in the form of the counterfeit—mostly people or objects appearing to stand for a real referent (for instance, royalty, nobility, holiness, etc.) that does not exist, in other words, in the spirit of pretense, in dissimulating others that a person or a thing does not really “have it”—to the Industrial Revolution, in which the dominant simulacrum is the product, the series, which can be propagated on an endless production line; and finally to current times, in which the dominant simulacrum is the model, which by its nature already stands for endless reproducibility, and is itself already reproduced,” Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulations. The Precession of Simulacra.European Graduate School.

I can’t help but see a trajectory which replaces a brutality against the body a la Hausman with one that works against the mind, no form only resemblance, easily propagated and bombarded by visual images and information. Will the digital head add to this or offer some respite from the current deluge of addictive stimulus?

The Toshiba team and Bjorn Stenger continue to work on their ground-breaking projects with a view to, as mentioned earlier, improve communication, help children to learn and offer comfort to the elderly. I wonder how we will use these breakthroughs and what artists will say about us in the future as a result.

by Michael Eden

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