The AGHORA

Speculative Design • Exhibition Design • Product Design

The Raja-rishi learns continuously and cultivates his thoughts, he avoids false and flattering advisors and instead associates with the true and accomplished elders, he is genuinely promoting the security and welfare of his people, he enriches and empowers his people, he practices ahimsa, he lives a simple life and avoids harmful people or activities. A just king gains the loyalty of his people not because he is king, but because he is just.

The Arthashastra by Kautilya, L.N. Rangarajan

AGHORA

Introduction

Why the world needs a Raja

A figure at the other extreme from the Trump’s and the Modi’s in the world right now. But for obvious reasons we cannot find one amongst our politicians. So why not look elsewhere for a suitable candidate?

Technology hasn’t advanced well enough for us to create our own Frankenstein’s monster, but a close alternative does exist. We are at the forefront of creating intelligent systems that can learn and make sound decisions. A value fit for a just king.

It is this which formed the core idea of this project, which is to use Artificial Intelligence to head a government, thus obtaining a holistic and republic nation. I call this system:

The AGHORA – The Artificially Intelligent Government for a Holistic and Republic Administration.

modi protesters in London

Fig: Anti-Modi protests in London, 2018.

Fig: Aghoris are members of a section of Hindus who believe in moksha.

aghora in greece

Fig: An Agora in ancient Greece was a public meeting place for discussion regarding governance, hence a precursor to democracy.

Digging into my personal interest in politics, technology, history and India, I wished to present to the audience a possible way to mitigate the issues we face at present – corrupt politicians, crumbling sovereignty, weak democracy and helpless citizens.

AGHORA exists not as a solution to a grave problem, but through this project I aim to utilise the most valuable technologies at present – Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – to come up with a way to instigate discourse regarding their possible applications in the future.

By utilising philosophies and teachings from the times when India was the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world, and incorporating them in present day technologies, the project explored and united what seemed alien, to form a piece of art that at the same time explored future technologies, while seeking guidance from the centuries past to fix issues of the present.

companies working to create voting systems

Fig: Some of the companies working on redesigning politics using new technologies.

reference books

Fig: Books that I referred to help me with the research on ancient Indian Philosophies & Present day governments.

Background

Politics in India

Politics is a complicated matter in India. Especially because it is entwined with possibly the only thing which is more complicated – religion. Religious murders, caste and colour based discrimination, illiterate politicians, uneducated citizens, fake & false news and corruption are just a few of the issues we face at present.

My previous research into the political and religious situation in India showed me that a majority of the issues caused by current politicians like propagandas and ill targeted policies can be corrected if there existed systems that could collate information from trusted sources and perform tasks such as detecting fake news and identifying political pain points that require immediate governmental action.

Background

Elections in India

Though the chance to redesign the complete political system in India seems intriguing and a worthy challenge, it would have been futile and tiresome. Coming up with a governmental system that will satisfy 1.3 billion people will be a challenge unlike any other.

So, instead of focusing on the entire system, I decided to concentrate on redesigning a small, yet the most vital aspect of a democratic government. The elections.

Fig: IDEO’s voting system that they designed for the Los Angeles County elections.

Fig: Microsoft’s Election Guard.

Fig: Mahant Bharatdas Darshandas, the lone voter living in the middle of the Gir Forest.

Many international firms like Microsoft and IDEO has developed voting systems that they implemented in countries such as the US. But a solution to India’s problems does not exist.

An election in India is a festival. From the biggest of cities to the remotest of jungles, the furore that is an election is a spectacle.

Be it for a single person living deep inside the forests where the Maoists thrive, or for a community in the Himalayas that has no contact with the rest of the world, the Election Commission of India strives their best to reach out to them. So, it was vital that the product that I design must be highly versatile in design and function.

Background

Design in Politics

Design is always political.

How to Fight Fascism talk, Mike Monteiro

From designing a political campaign to using design as an instrument to perform political activism, political dimensions of design are vast and still lie mostly unexplored.

This design project is an instrument of discourse aimed at creating awareness regarding the current state of politics in the world and how upcoming technologies could play a role in making it better in the future.

Fig: Barack Obama’s iconic 2008 presidential campaign poster.

Fig: Banksy’s graffiti stating the truth of today’s India.

Fig: The curious case of Brixton Pound (B£). When art is accepted in the real life.

Background

Design and AI

Designers have always been critical to technology and it is very much the same case here as well. By showing to the audience a future where AI is the supreme ruler, I intend to plant in them the thought of a future where that might be the situation.

For the critics amongst them, it is a chance to start asking questions, for the technologists, it opens up new possibilities, and for the artists in them, I hope to be a small inspiration.

Fig: The Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibition was a treasure trove of information.

Fig: Joy Buolamwini’s, AI Ain’t I A Woman, explored AI’s discrimination against minority ethnic faces which inspired me to create a non-discriminatory AI.

Fig: The Golem, an anthropomorphic being created from inanimate matter, the medieval AGHORA.

Background

AI in Politics

Recent advancements in AI and ML has shown their value in various fields like media and health care. But its effect in policy making and governance is yet to be exploited. The technologies like NLP and GAN are advancing at such high pace that I figured that they could play a vital role in correcting the governmental blunders that exist today.

For example, Natural Language Processing could be used to develop data collection and retrieval systems that the people could use to seek truth in political propaganda, NLP’s could support the creation of a database of politically conflicted areas which will bring out the true effect of governance in that zone and so on. Ideas were many, but there are drawbacks as well.

Fig: Using AI to Identify Environmental Conflict Events – From Scrapping News Articles to Map Visualization.

Fig: Heatmap of crime intensity against women in Delhi.

Fig: Heatmaps predictions using different thresholds.

Algorithms are neutral, they’re fair, they’re not human so they’re not biased or prejudice, and they’re the best thing ever for objectivity… In your dreams.

Dr. Noel Sharkey, University of Sheffield.

Obviously AI is not the best tool to create the perfect government. But the reason I chose AI, is for its capability to obtain a character based on what it learns from us. Cybersecurity and hacking aside, AI becomes an entity that we make it to be.

If Microsoft’s Tay turned out to be racist, that is because we turned it to be like that. AGHORA will be racist and cruel if that’s what people want it to be. But this time, we can only blame ourselves, not our politicians.

Ideation

Imaginative

The wildest of ideas was to create, a complete experience of an election in the future.

The audience would enter a blacked out room where two voting booths are kept. A voice guides them through the voting process. The first stage was a questionnaire which thought the system the peoples needs.

Next, an encoded ink would be printed on the finger of the voters for security and as a symbol of the voters ink being used today.

Then, the faces of the audience would be combined to generate the face of the president which would be projected on the wall. The guiding voice also modulates as per the average gender of the combined audience. This voice represented the presidents voice.

Finally a slip will be printed which showed the present day news as if AGHORA had existed today.

Fig: My sketches for a grand exhibit that will showcase how the future elections would be like.

Ideation

Experimental

Once I had the grand idea all set, I decided to trim it down by removing the parts that could not be implemented due to restrictions of time and space.

Out went the huge room and the additional booth. The fingerprinting seemed like an element that did not belong in the future and it meant that the voter had to spend more time in the booth. So it was removed.

The rest of the plan moved to the next stage.

Ideation

Feasible

Looking at the technological limitations – advancements in AI and ML, availability of existing technologies and such, the prototype went through a few more refinements.

I named the process of creating AGHORA ‘The Generation’ as it is technically not a voting, but the creation of a president. The year of the generation was set to 2034, an ode to the Orwellian 1984.

Fig: I named the process of creating AGHORA ‘The Generation’ as it is technically not a voting, but the creation of a president. The year of the generation was set to 2034, an ode to the Orwellian 1984.

Ideation  •  Feasible

1 Booth

Unlike the elections of today where the citizens have to visit voting centres to cast their votes, the technological trends of today pave the way for a future where we could possibly perform the task from the comfort of our home.

But for the purpose of establishing intrigue in an exhibition, I decided to develop a stand that will run the generation application on a touch based device which the audience can interact with, while all the other equipment will be hidden from the view of the audience.

Ideation  •  Feasible

2 Quiz

Credit

Illiteracy is a major factor affecting elections in India, especially in this time of fake news. So, to prevent the influence of people who are unaware of the truth, in developing a new government, I decided to include a quiz in the generation.

First, the audience will be asked 3 questions based on relevant news. This will enable the system to identify if they come with the required knowledge. Answering each question correctly gives them a credit. Higher the credit, higher the influence their answers to the next set of questions will have on the system.

Opinions

The next set of 3 questions will be about policies and actions that AGHORA has the power to decide on. The answers to these questions will help AGHORA make political decisions.

Ultimately, it becomes the people who make the policies and laws of the country.

Fig: Impact of the quiz on AGHORA

Ideation  •  Feasible

3 Sketch

Anthropomorphism

Giving non-living objects human characteristics is a topic worth a presentation of its own. But its hard to deny the need of having constant presence in the media for a person like a president. So, it was vital that AGHORA also has physical features.

The most memorable physical feature of a person is his face, and it is this which I decided to give AGHORA.

If AGHORA’s thoughts are made by the opinions of the people, it was only right for them to decide how it looks as well.

Due to limitations of AI technologies today, I had to settle on enabling the audience to sketch the face of AGHORA which is later used as datasets for existing ML technologies to output a human face that resembles the sketch.

Ultimately, how their president looks, is up to the people to decide.

Ideation  •  Feasible

4 News

For the people to know the effects of their decisions on a system like AGHORA, I decided to present them, at the end of the generation process a slip of paper that will contain relevant news of today as if AGHORA had existed today.

The news is hardcoded and were made based upon the questions that too were hardcoded. Depending on the credits the audience gets, and the answers that he gives to question set B, the corresponding news headlines are printed.

Development

1 Booth

Material

I initially had ideas to create the booth using acrylic, but it seemed less green. So wood it was!

Dimensions

My initial measurements had to be changed because of the limitations of the available machinery.

Aesthetics

This was an unforeseen dilemma. After a small survey amongst friends, family and staff, I decided to go green here as well. No chemical paints.

Making process

Development

2 Quiz

Questions

During initial tests, I figured that the audience found it difficult to relate to the questions as they were focused too much on matters concerning India. So, with the help of my colleague, we paraphrased them in a manner that would be more clear to an international audience.

Device

The device in which the generation process happened could have been in any touch based device. Since it was possible to run the Quiz online if made using HTML, I decide to use an iPad as it was easily available.

Server

Node.js was the foundation which coordinated amongst the various parts of the project. It enabled communication between the iPad (client) and the RaspberryPi (server) which directed the printer to print the slip. This was a tough nut to crack.

HTML

Since I had sufficient experience coding HTML, this part of the development was easy. But I did have to re-write the code once I started on the JavaScript part.

CSS

I was familiar with basic CSS, but I challenged myself to learn CSS Grids which enabled me to create the quiz web app with high responsiveness and thus it managed to look as intended to on screens of any size.

JS

I had tried JS in the form of p5.js but had never used it alongside HTML before. The ability of adding lines into HTML was a new one which caused me to rewrite my first HTML code. I did manage to get a hang of JS quite easily.

Making process

Development

3 Sketch

StyleGAN & Morphing

The plan to combine the faces of the audience and generate one single face that represents AGHORA was not technically feasible. It required large processing power and could not be done in real time, so the idea was skipped.

GauGAN

Researchers at NVIDIA had managed to utilise GAN’s to allow people to create highly realistic scenes from normal sketches. Since it was not possible to train this on human faces, I was unable to use it for my project.

CycleGAN & Pix2Pix

This allowed users to generate photos from paintings, turn horses into zebras, perform style transfer, and more. A port like edges2cats was perfect and could be trained on human faces, but for this project, the output was still too process intensive for use and the output was not as

Sketch2Face

Sketch2face was made specifically to convert sketches of faces to photos. This seemed most appropriate so I chose to implement it, regardless of the compromises I had to make on some features of the project like removing the ability to show in real-time the AI generated faces.

Sketch2Face   •   Input

Sketch2Face takes line drawings of human faces as the input. It was a trained on a database of professional sketches of human faces. It would be interesting to see how the system reacts to amateur drawings.

Sketch2Face   •   Output

The output of the GAN could not be shown live to the audience. This was its biggest drawback. I would run the process at a later stage after the exhibition with the sketches I collected from the audience.

AI & ML

Implementing AI and ML in AGHORA was possible due to S2F, but making their presence known to the audience was not feasible. So, I decided to make the audience contribute to the creation of AGHORA, by making them sketch a face first

Situation

This situation reminded me of the ‘What a Loving and Beautiful World’ exhibit by teamLab at the Barbican. They showed a non-AI exhibit at an AI exhibition, just to prove that an AI filled future is not as near as we think it is.

Making process

Development

4 News

Mockup

The first version was a mockup I made in Photoshop to figure out how I wanted the paper slip to look like.

PDFKit

Using PDFKit I managed to recreate the structure pretty well in code and with additional features. Once I was able to setup the RaspberryPi, I managed to print the slip successfully but as standalone.

Integration

Integrating it with the rest of the code was difficult as I faced client and server issues.

Making process

Development

5 Testing

The Good

The aesthetics of the quiz interface received much praise. The paraphrasing of the questions also proved effective as they were more clear to the audience now. The tested users found it helpful that there were descriptions on what and why all the steps were there for. The sketching was described as fun by most, and most of the people found the idea of a final slip with the news amusing and a great addition to the project.

The Bad

The fact that AGHORA was an AI based system was very clear in the project description but the process with which AGHORA is being made showed no clues for such. People did enquire about its absence, which I did purposefully since I was unable to showcase any relevant AI technology live to the audience. I was adamant that the audience need not feel the presence of an AI to such high extent unless it actually exists in the front end. Also, the future would be where AI would have seamlessly penetrated into our daily lives. Forcing it would be unnatural.

The issues with printing the slip was a huge hurdle. Omitting it would have meant that a significant feature of the overall experience would have to be removed.

Conclusion

Exhibition

Conclusion

Achievements

Critical & Speculative Thinking

As a designer, it was natural for me to see clearly into the present state of mind of the viewers. But the course, which culminated in this project was crucial in helping me not only see and analyse the present states from different perspectives, but also enable to look into the future state of things.

AI & ML Knowledge

The field of AI & ML is becoming a dominant power that is sure to make its presence known in spontaneous fields very soon. I as an artist was intrigued by this prospect and used this opportunity to dip my fingers in it. I will say from my experience that it is a field not suitable for all and something that I intend to not immerse myself in.

Coding Skills

I will say that I outdid even my own expectations in this regard. Some technologies like CSS Grids and JS were completely new to me but I managed to perform exceedingly well without much external help. Node.JS on the other hand proved rather tough not just for me, even the people that supported me found it though to overcome some crucial issues.

Woodwork

The most satisfying experience has to be the one where our hard work takes a tangible form. Working with wood, even if it is being laser cut to a certain extent, was very supportive to my morale when the technologies and AI of today seemed to be letting me down.

Collaboration

The opportunity to work with fellow technicians in the 3D workshop and the Creative Technology Lab was a great learning experience. It was also helpful to have people with great creative minds like my colleagues in MA IDC to come together and help me test out my project and give valuable feedback.

I also had the opportunity to work on another project of a colleague, Anto Fredric, where I was able to help him out in developing the concept of his project, visualising and mapping the user flow and designing the typography. This multi-disciplinary role was thoroughly enjoyable, more in-depth details about my contributions can be found here.

Perseverance

I had lost almost two weeks of development time due to personal reasons for which I had to visit India. I also had to travel to various cities during the end of November for various job interviews which sadly were unsuccessful.

Nonetheless, with all the limitations of AI technologies taken into consideration, and technical difficulties that proved to be quite a hurdle for even people much more technically capable than I, I believe I have managed to build to the maximum of my abilities, an interesting piece of work worth talking about.

Conclusion

Reflection

Generation 2034

Lots of technological compromises had to be made to allow this project to stay true to the core idea of allowing the people to create their leader.

For the sake of using technology, I could have implemented an ordinary AI system in the front end, but the choice to not do so was hard but truthful.

Simple factors like not painting the booth was a hard choice between aesthetics and user satisfaction vs the environment. But choices had to be made. All of this compromises and adjustments that I had to make are the factors that I intend to fix in a future iteration of my work.

Corrections

There are a few changes that I wished to make if technology, time and resources had permitted and marks and my degree weren’t on the line.

Redesign the theme

Instead of having a booth, I would have loved to place the scenario of elections taking place at the comfort of a home. So maybe a couch with an iPad nearby where the audience could participate in the generation by just taking the quiz and making a sketch.

GauGAN

GauGAN is the nearest perfect implementation of my actual idea. It allows the real time development of high quality photos from sketches. It would have been perfect if I could have trained it on human faces instead of just landscapes.

Generation 2035

If we are living in the alternate dimension where AGHORA might exist in the future, then I believe that unlike elections of today, where the people have practically no choice but to accept the choice of the majority and suffer through 4 or 5 years of a political regime, it is possible that the peoples opinion regarding governance and ruling can be made mode frequently.

As and when a new issue crops up, AGHORA can request the citizens to maybe load up an app on a device of their choice and participate in a generation. The questions that are asked can be of a very specific nature pertaining to the current issue.

A system that could analyse the events of yesterday, collect the opinions of citizens today, and make sound decisions for a better tomorrow. Promising for sure.

Plans

I intend to take this project further than what I have been able to do with what I have now. With the right technical knowledge (for me or for whomsoever its is that will be helping me out) and the research knowledge that I posses, I truly believe that this work could be made into something globally valuable. I do have some plans on how to take this forward:

Real life scenario

I plan to recreate this same concept used in AGHORA in a project that has real life significance at present. A simple text based game where you words have significant consequences is just a random example.

Further research

This project has managed to showcase my weaknesses in the technological side, but also showed me my capabilities as a designer and researcher which I will be further pursuing both in the form of a collaborative research paper and through a PhD in a few years time.

A Pause

I have learned so much in such a short course of time. I have learned success, I have learned failure and I have learned to never give up and rise from failure. It is not right that this story has to end with me just standing, because I will move on. So, let this not be and ending, but just a pause.