shirin anlen
Creative Technologist

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︎WIP︎ : Since 2017 I have been working on an excessive hands-on research project titled Marrow, which aims to speculate about the possibility of mental illness in machine learning. A project that has developed since to an immersive theater experience in collaboration with Avner Peled.

If an AI could achieve the level of complexity required for mental states, could it also undergo mental illness?

Marrow is an immersive, interactive installation, exploring the possibilities of mental disorders in machine learning models.

Grounded in hands-on research and speculative design, the users experience the story of four AI models desperately trying to function as a family having dinner. By playing the role of each family member, the users embody four different learning models, each with their bugs and glitches leading to peculiar behaviours and an overall dysfunctional family.

The project allows the user to get a unique and personal glimpse of how AIs might integrate into our lives if we were to extrapolate the current learning models into fully-fledged thinking entities. By telling the story of a broken family, we learn not only about the flawed nature of these models but also about the problems of human thinking that developed them. Drawing on my own personal story, Marrow provides a new perspective on mental disorders, computer errors and what lies in between those spaces. It is a chance to not only learn about the hidden states of AIs but also experience them for ourselves.


Last March I wrote some first ideas behind the family dinner of Marrow (I've always been jealous of other people's family), the main scene of the experience, which was prototyped at IDFA DocLAB 2018. In the medium post Family2Family, I explained why and how we trained a Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN) machine learning model on a “perfect family dinners” dataset.

In September 2019, we started the development phase under the co-production of the National Film Board of Canada and AtlasV.

This allowed us to revisit a few of the decisions we’ve made a year earlier and question whether they are aligned with the project’s goal and calls for action.

Marrow highlights glitches found in machine learning models to reflect on the possibility of mental disorder in AI, and on the social constructs that lead to those glitches, offering new paths for social thinking.

During the Marrow development phase, our goal was to understand how to work with the results of a distorted family, adding real-time interactions with the users and creating more interventions with the GAN model. We looked for ways to link StyleGAN to the story, along with other models and visuals, wanting to raise a conversation about distorted outputs, and how they highlight the confusion when one’s own sense of expression slips away.

Open-source code for dataset preparation and filtering: Marrow on Github.

My role included: project lead, script-writing, storyboarding, dataset research and scraping, Unity animations, Touchdesigner interactions, user research, user experience, programming.

With: Philippe Lambert (sound design), Paloma Dawkins (animations)

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