Imperial physicist weaves science and art in prize-winning story

PhD student Anita Chandran’s tender tale of an AI-human relationship took home the top prize at the 2019 RSCU Science Challenge.

Can artificial intelligence (AI) create true art? Will robots replace human scientists? How can we build conscious machines?

This year’s Science Challenge – the Royal College of Science Union’s annual science communication competition focused on many of the big questions AI raises.

Imperial physics PhD student Anita Chandran’s tender tale of an AI-human relationship took home the £1000 overall prize. Chandran’s short story (Nothing But) Art centres on the romantic relationship between an AI named Keni and a human artist named Chal as Keni confronts what it means to be creative and to be human.

Read the story and listen to a live reading below this Q&A.

Lasers and poetry: About Anita’s work

Anita weaves science and art in her writing and her life. As a researcher, she spends most of her time in the lab developing ultrafast lasers that produce short pulses of light that are only a few quadrillionths of a second long.

[Writing is] a very different process and that allows me to reflect on science and why I’m doing it, thinking in a broader context Anita Chandran Physics PhD student and creative writer

As a writer, her work spans essays, poetry and fiction. She has been previously recognised by The Sir Arthur Acland Prize in the field of Science, Culture and Society and is currently working on a collection of short fiction on forgotten women in science.

We spoke with Anita about her prize-winning story’s inspiration, writing advice and the relationship between art and science in her own life.

Where did your story idea come from?

When the question “How will AI’s turn art into science?” was posed I spent a good month being confused and a bit frustrated because I didn’t really know how to approach it.

I had a lot of very productive and fruitful discussions with my colleagues, who are all scientists, trying to get to the bottom of what art and humanity or art and artificial intelligence really meant. I thought one of the most interesting ways to explore those grey areas is through a relationship because there’s a lot of give and take and confusion in relationships.

What was the hardest part of writing the story?

One was finding a convincing voice for the AI. This character wasn’t fully human, but they’re not totally robotic either. It was a really difficult process of iteration. I tried writing this story from every other point of view before I settled on Keni’s because it was so tricky.

Did you want readers to imagine Keni, the AI, as a female or male character?

I tried to keep them as ambiguous as possible. I’ve asked a bunch of people whether they had assumed Keni to be of a particular gender and had genuinely mixed replies.

I always wondered: What does it mean to have an AI with gender? Given that we’re trying to get AI to develop consciousness, they would have a sense of their own gender identity.

What were you trying to communicate about AI with your story?

What I was trying to communicate ?— and I hope people take different things from it ?— is the way that artificial intelligence has become more human.

I think the way that the AI or computer-based consciousness becomes more human is by learning to interact with humans. Emotional intelligence is a learned skill and I don’t think all humans are emotionally intelligent. The only way you develop emotional intelligence is by challenging yourself, be that through having difficult relationships or engaging with complicated works of art.

How do you see the relationship between art and science in your own life?

In my life, I think there are a few ways. Science communication is one and I think being artistically inclined is a really good way of communicating science to the public which is really very important.

On a day-to-day basis, writing also just gives me a bit of head space. It’s a very different process and that allows me to reflect on science and why I’m doing it, thinking in a broader context. It’s increasingly necessary for scientists to seriously consider the artistic and philosophical implications of their research.

What are your favourite things about being a scientist and a writer? Do they complement or contradict each other?

The process is very different. In creative writing, you don’t have to worry about truth so much or rigidity depending on what you’re doing. Whereas in science, you’re very much searching for what you define to be ‘true’.

But there are lots of things that are very similar. Both are really about solving problems: writing is solving a problem on a page, but physics is solving a problem in the lab. I really like that challenge and that puzzle ?— both require a certain degree of creativity and lateral thinking.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve loved to write since I was very little. I’m from Sheffield, which has a proud tradition of creative writing and in my hometown there was a youth writing collective. I did a lot of writing with them in my teenage years. When I came to university, it trailed off for a couple of years and then I took an advanced creative writing course with Dr Aifric Campbell. I loved it so much that I did a project with her alongside my physics dissertation.

What is your writing process like?

It’s quite hard to find the time to write consistently and edit consistently, especially when you’re also doing a PhD. Often it will be like a Sunday morning or evening. I tend to carry a notebook with me and write down things that I find interesting during the week.

I try and get out 1,000 or 2,000 good words a month, which is not very many but when you’re writing short stories that’s just about acceptable.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I feel like the first thing everybody says is just write something. But I actually think a good bit of advice is not just write something but share something. Almost everybody who wants to write will write and then be like, “Oh, that’s rubbish. I’m not really a writer.”

As far as I’m concerned, if you put something down on paper you’re a writer. But you never get better at anything without feedback. It feels a bit like baring your soul to someone and leaving it open for criticism, but that process is so important.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I have two years of my PhD left so it’s not something that I’m fully sure of at this stage. I’m definitely not ruling out academia.

I think it would be nice to have a job that mingles my two passions. I would quite like to do something which gives me the ability to write for an audience either policy-wise or communications-wise and work as a creative in some form.

And you’re working on a novel – can you tell us about it?

I have one that I’ve been working on since I was 14 which is extremely trashy. And then another which I’m quite serious about which I only started writing in September last year and it’s coming together slowly. It’s hard to be disciplined, especially when the writing becomes more challenging.

Read Anita’s RSCU Broadsheet winning story and listen to a live reading below.

(Nothing but) Art

Ours is an upstairs-downstairs apartment in the district of New York that was once Brooklyn. Chal uses the loft for painting and sculpture; he repurposes old fragments of society – silicon circuit boards, cables. He paints with organic dyes which cause a mess: oil paints are scarce, acrylics are ‘trouble’. He puts his work up in the yard out back, and when he’s lucky, exhibits it in the gallery on the corner of sixth street and eleventh.

I am walking out of our bedroom where he’s still asleep. I am shirking our morning routine. Chal makes coffee using a kettle, ground beans and filter – a “small homage to antiquity” which he insists upon and I tolerate. I cook breakfast but I leave for the university before he finishes eating, after putting on the clothes which he has laid out for me on the bed.

This morning, I’ve ended my switch-off period four hours early, well before the sun has risen. It’s the weekend and so I haven’t dressed; I only ever do this when we meet others. I suspect if I don’t change my clothes every day my colleagues would notice, would add it to the perfectly formed list of my ‘inhumanness’.

I can just about make out the colour of Chal’s reddish-blonde hair dusting across the pillow. The first thing he does on waking is throw open the curtains in our bedroom. When we first moved in together, I asked him why he would choose an apartment with windows that occupy most of the wall space – it would be expensive to heat, and he suffers in the cold. He just looked at me, small smile on his lips – “it’s about the light”.

He’s curled up on his side, a thumb pressed to the corner of his mouth. His other hand hangs limp over the edge of the bed and I can see the mud-grey marks of clay on his fingertips. There is a mostly empty bottle of wine on the floor. When he is sleeping, I notice a strong resemblance between him now and the stored images I have of him when he was twenty-one. His skin is more sun-dappled, his beard – now existent – is peppered with white.

He will not take any age modifiers.

I carry on to the kitchen. On the side are heaped a broken mug, one plate of mostly unconsumed pasta, and a book of textile prints by Chal’s friend from college. It’s not quite what Chal would refer to as a sketchbook but it contains glued-down fabrics, layered over paint and photographs. Earlier, I had called them shapeless.

“The thing you don’t get about textiles is that they have richness, depth and ch-“

Chal’s voice booms through the kitchen by accident, and I cut it off as soon as I realise it’s not just playing in my head. A processing error. Even in the liminal space of four am, I can hear the passive aggression in his tone. Chal would refer to this as ‘overthinking it’: “thing is Keni, you guys think more than humans do – we’re not that complex. Humans just talk out our asses most the time. You can’t take us too seriously.” You and us, ours and yours, inhumans and humans. The dishes remain on the side, but I take the book.

The artist has known Chal since they were boys, and even though they were setting out together, the printmaker has done well for himself.

Occasionally, we see him at gallery events where we wear patched up suits and twice re-heeled shoes. He earns enough from his work to live off, has a “kitsch little place, just by the park”, two children and a wife who “really intimidates you, if you’re not careful”. When he says these things, I do not have to scan through any possible meanings: Chal’s voice is unambiguously bitter.

I leaf through the pages. The fact is I don’t dislike the prints. The artist is skilled, and they are well made. My autonomous response is that they are pleasing to look at. But when Chal looks through the book at dinner, his shoulders drop a fraction of an inch. I lace my fingers with his. This time, he pulls away.

Up the loft stairs is Chal’s studio, and in general I keep well away from it apart from to hoover. In our early days together, I’d often sit and watch him paint.

“Do you feel much when you look at this?” A blue canvas with two figures embracing on it.

“I think sadness. Maybe a bit bittersweet.”

“Interesting! Good. Well not good, obviously, if you’re sad.” He flings his arm around my shoulders, kisses my cheek. He knows I don’t feel this, per se, but it comforts me anyway. “Thanks for telling me, it’s hard to guess sometimes.”

We would listen to my choice of music – Chal finds this mixed, even now. It is not what my computational ability has adapted towards over time, but I find I have a good academic understanding of music: its cadences, its rhythms, its colour. Time has given me taste. And after hours, when he grew tired of painting, he’d collapse next to me on the floor and we’d watch the evening out of the window. Those moments, if I were to triangulate the response of my mind to the stimuli, I would say I felt perfectly happy.

Chal describes sadness as a “physical feeling”. When his mother passed away, he lost approximately ten percent of his body weight, and he would tell me that his heart felt as though it was being ripped apart. I don’t have a biological heart. When Chal dies, I will not be capable of crying. But I am sewn to Chal, like fabric to paper. A part of my basic functionality will cease if Chal isn’t there. This doesn’t physically hurt me, I somehow just know it.

“Sometimes, Keni, it’s just difficult with you. It all has to end – life, us, all of it. That’s the point.”

“I don’t see how an ending benefits either of us when an ending isn’t the only option.”

“All of you, you – Maybe you just don’t get any of it. Art, my art, it’s just pointless to you right?” He drinks from his mug, and trips as he stands up and drops it. It smashes into three on the floor. The pasta goes uneaten on the side.

I’ve never made art. When I first met Chal, this was something of a joke between us. Even for an inhuman, I was always stuffy. He was a “painter pretending to be a philosophy student”. Some beings like me are adapted to analyse and create new works of art or music but I was designed as a generalist – easy to place in a variety of fields. There is a small square canvas on a make-shift easel that Chal hasn’t put away. I don’t know how to use the dyes really, I’ve only ever watched Chal do it.

I expect the dye to run and drip but instead it seeps into the material. I scan through the hundreds of collected images of each of Chal’s paintings, and each of them makes me conscious of different emotions. But one lingers. I am trying very hard to place it. It sits somewhere between regret and belonging. I’ve never encountered it before. I close my eyes

and try to think of how Chal would describe it. Humans have it so easy – when they are happy, they laugh; when they are sad, they cry.

I make many mistakes, each time scrubbing at the painting with my fingers, or coating it in other dye. And by the time I have finished it, I need to rest – my processing power, the amount of cross-referencing and neural development required to finish the painting have drained me. I close my eyes for a moment.

I apply the same learning algorithms to the painting that I would to a work of Chal’s. He wasn’t wrong. I have borrowed many of his techniques, but none of his mastery is in the painting. “It’s just pointless to you right?” I pick it off the easel and without a second thought put it in the dustbin at the entrance to the studio.

As I descend the stairs, I scan through photographs of us through the last twenty years, together and apart, separate and united. In the kitchen, I clean away the uneaten pasta and broken mug and, walking back to bed, I wonder what exactly it would be like to experience sadness in any other way than this.

It’s a Sunday morning. I exit my switch-off period to the uncharacteristically bright sound of whistling from down the hall. Pale light streams in through the window. As I sit up in bed, my joints creak from inaction. A small painting is hanging on our bedroom wall in front of me. Under it, a label: ‘by Keni’.

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