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Interview: Artist + Filmmaker Ross Goodwin

From White House ghostwriter to creative technologist for Google, the campaign leader for human-machine relationships

By Fiona Killackey

Ross Goodwin‘s brain isn’t wired like most. Part creative writer, part engineering genius, this 30-year-old San Francisco native struggles when it comes to filling out occupation forms. Since graduating from MIT (Economics) and NYU ITP, he has taken on roles including White House ghostwriter for the Obama administration, computer hacker, data scientist, app founder, and, most recently, co-creator of the first films created in conjunction with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Ahead of his first visit to Australia for Vivid Ideas, Ross spoke with us about the role of play in ideation, creating a Hoffbot, why machines aren’t the enemy and more.

“I usually just write ‘artist’ now,” says Goodwin, when asked what he puts on custom forms. “That could easily change in the future if there’s a better way to describe what I’m doing. I like calling myself an artist because it gives me a lot of liberty to produce the type of work that I make, whereas if I call myself an engineer, that’s someone who build bridges. What I do is a little more experimental and it’s OK for some of my bridges to fall down sometimes.”

Goodwin spent his childhood oscillating between a love of math and physics, and of books and writing. The son of a paleontologist and a wills attorney, he was aware that his varied interests would impact his career. “I always knew I wanted to do something that was going to pique my intellectual curiosity. I was always looking for ways to combine my interests and it took me this long, almost 30 years now, to figure out how to do it.”

How exactly he does this is somewhat complex. Employing machine learning and natural language processing, as well as other computational tools, Goodwin creates new forms and interfaces for written language. This includes, among other things, a website application Word.Camera which allows users to upload images that are put through an algorithm that determines concepts and objects present in the image, before a text passage is produced. In late 2016, Goodwin used a lapel mic to record his own voice for two months straight in an attempt to create an original Ross Goodwin bot. “I’m running speech-to-text on audio and I’m going to train a neural network on the transcript to make a bot that talks like me.” Going one step further, Goodwin is “planning to put that [bot] in a mannequin dressed in my clothes that will talk like me forever.”

When we play with things, we have the opportunity to figure alternate uses for them

While citing past influences—including the avant-garde art movements of the 1920s and 1960s and the dadaists of the early 20th Century—Goodwin also looks to the future for his inspiration. “A lot of my inspiration comes from the act of play. Play is a really critical part of the ideation process, because when we play with things, we have the opportunity to figure alternate uses for them. You can take any tool and simply start to tinker with it and a lot of times ideas can spring from that simple activity.” Play is something Goodwin believes should be utilized a lot more in the workplace, alongside rapid prototyping. “The principles of rapid prototyping have been important to me in my process in terms of the rule of just getting to the experience as quickly as possible. When you have an idea for a new experience you want to try and create some version of that experience as fast as possible, so you can start designing around what you see are the important things and what you see are the challenges. Through both rapid prototyping and play you have a better understanding of what you need to create. I’ve been working with Google lately and, although they’re such a big company, they definitely see the value in letting their employees play and in ideation and rapid prototyping.”

One industry Goodwin suggests could well do more of this is healthcare. “It’s bizarre that, at least in America, so much work has gone into technology to create drugs and to create new sorts of devices for doctors to use, yet very little work has gone into making the process easier for patients to use. Perhaps some more play around how they could potentially fix things for the person who has to deal with the health care industry, from the outside, would be a major benefit.”

Goodwin’s love affair with stretching the capabilities of AI and bringing awareness to these was perhaps best seen in “Sunspring” (2016), a film he co-created with UK theatre director, Oscar Sharp utilizing AI models for the script. “Oscar and I were talking about this for a solid year before we made it. We tried a version in 2015 but the content the AI produced just wasn’t good enough. We wanted to produce something that was watchable and actable. In the end ‘Sunspring’ took about a month working on the AI model, but the whole film was made in 48 hours.”

Last month, the duo released a second film, “It’s No Game,” again incorporating AI. “For ‘It’s No Game,’ I trained all the models in a week and again we made the film in two days.” This time in addition to creating the lines–which are, in part, brought to life by David Hasselhoff playing the ‘Hoffbot’—AI also created the choreography, based on an algorithm that utilized French words for ballet moves.

While watching the films is entertaining, the glitches are noticeable in the AI-configured script of “Sunspring” and this is something Goodwin wants people to acknowledge. “I love showcasing the glitches because that’s where we’re at right now with AI, it shows us the inherent nature of machines and how much they differ from us.”

“People ask, ‘When will AI be at a level where humans are no longer necessary?’ and I think we need to reframe that question to instead ask, ‘How long is it going to be until we’re satisfied with the AI we have?’ Is having AI completely take over everything a desirable state? Of course not! Humans are creative and we would hate to give that all away to a machine. The question is not when can we replace all humans with machines but at what point will the tools that machines provide for us, help us reach beyond our native capacities to the extent that what we can produce is light years beyond what we’re producing now. Humans working in consult with machines is the way of the future, not humans being completely replaced.”

Ross Goodwin is speaking about creative partnerships between humans and machines at Vivid Ideas, Sydney Friday June 2, 2017.

Images courtesy of Ross Goodwin


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