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Art Exhibit Explores Distributed Consciousness at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute 

AI Inquiries into Octopus Cognition, Nature Invite Viewers to Move Beyond a Human-Centered Perspective

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Cephalopods and artificial intelligence (AI) present new ways of looking at the world in a multimedia art exhibition opening at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute (QI) on Thursday, January 25, 2024.  

Created by artist Memo Akten, “Distributed Consciousness” (2021) transcends human-centered perspectives to explore ideas of collective consciousness and knowledge-building through cephalopod cognition and AI. In the face of a worsening climate crisis and rising AI uptake, the work invites viewers to blur the boundaries between human and animal, and living and nonliving intelligence, to question and ultimately move beyond a human-centric worldview. 

Poster showing abstract art of an octopus.

“I made this work during the pandemic,” said Akten, an assistant professor of computational art with the UC San Diego Department of Visual Arts. “I was trapped in a small Mediterranean fishing village in Turkey, while my U.S. visa application was on hold. I’d go snorkeling and see octopuses quite often, but at those depths they always appeared bluish-green. One day, I saw one sitting on a rock just below the surface. It flashed at me the most vibrant colors, and completely blew my mind. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through its mind. What kind of a mind did it even have?”

“Distributed Consciousness” approaches cephalopods, a class of animals that includes octopuses, as living models of decentralized data. Unlike mammals, octopuses sport a “decentralized” nervous system that includes eight arms capable of processing information and behaving independently of the brain.  

Octopuses and AI thus present examples of collective intelligence and knowledge-building, providing a platform for viewers to decouple from a human-centric worldview promoting alienation from the natural world and each other. 

​The work features custom AI-generated artwork encoded with 256 verses of poetry created through the language model GPT-3. The verses represent a human-machine meditation on the bonds between consciousness, technology, ecology, economy and sustainability.  

“I arrived at UC San Diego quite recently, so I’m incredibly excited and grateful for this opportunity to show my work at the Qualcomm Institute, and become part of this wonderful community,” said Akten.  

“Distributed Consciousness” opens Thursday, January 25 at 5 p.m. at the Gallery QI in Atkinson Hall, with a presentation and discussion with Akten. The exhibit will be on public display Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m., from opening night through Wednesday, March 24, 2024. 

Gallery QI is an initiative of UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute, which harnesses technology to jumpstart innovation in areas including culture, energy, the environment and health. The gallery is located on the first floor of Atkinson Hall, on the UC San Diego campus at the corner of Voigt Drive and Equality Lane. 

All Gallery QI events are free and open to the public. RSVPs to opening night are requested to galleryqi@ucsd.edu.

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