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Who's In This Podcast
Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Karen Palmer is an award-winning international artist and TED Speaker working at the forefront of immersive storytelling, futurism, and tech.

Ep21. Karen Palmer: A Message About A.I. from the Future

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Ep22. Walter Werzowa: Decoding Music with A.I.

Ep21. A Message About A.I. from the Future: Navigate the Legal & Ethical Landscape of Generative Artificial Intelligence with Karen Palmer

On the latest episode of Creativity Squared, hear from the artist who traveled back in time to show us the dystopia that we should try to avoid. 

Karen Palmer is the Storyteller from the Future. She’s an award-winning international artist and TED Speaker working at the forefront of immersive storytelling, futurism, and tech. 

She creates immersive film experiences that watch you back using artificial intelligence and facial recognition.

I say that I’ve come back to enable people to survive what is to come through the power of storytelling by enabling participants to experience the future today through my immersive experiences.”

Karen Palmer

Karen has been the opening keynote speaker at AT&T Shape Conference, MIT, Wired for Wonder Festival Australia, and TEDx Australia at the Sydney Opera House. She’s exhibited around the world, including NYC Armoury Arts Week, Museum of Modern Art Peru, PHI Centre Montreal, and more. Her art has also been featured in publications like Wired, Fast Company, and The Guardian, where they hailed her work as “leapfrogging over VR.”

Her latest project is Consensus Gentium which had its world debut at SXSW this past March where Karen also won the SXSW 2023 Film & TV Jury Award in the XR Experience Category.

In the episode, Karen discusses her evolution from traditional filmmaker to a creator of immersive experiences that explore social justice in the context of technology. She talks about the need to democratize A.I., how you can experience the future today through her “reality simulators,” and how she uses immersive art to make you conscious of your subconscious behavior. 

How to Rewire Your Brain

Over the past 15 years, Karen’s pushed the envelope of interactive and experiential filmmaking with the goal of helping audiences become more conscious of their subconscious behavior. She cut her teeth in traditional filmmaking until 2008 when she left her job to work on projects that leveraged technology to enable viewer-led experiences. 

An early project in that space, SYNCSELF 2, combined film, tech, and Karen’s passion for parkour to recreate the experience of conquering fear. Participants donned an EEG headset that measured their level of focus via electrical signals from the brain while watching a film shot from the perspective of a parkour artist as if the viewer themself was leaping from buildings and flipping through the air. 

She was just starting to explore the possibilities of A.I. in the mid-2010’s when social unrest boiled over in the U.S. in response to police killings of unarmed Black men. Watching news coverage of protests and media caricatures of burning cities, Karen says she was inspired to develop a new narrative. 

I was like, don’t people know what’s happening when they are representing people of color and Black people in the media as being looters? And where were the role models to represent what’s happening and put this in the arts?”

Karen Palmer

In 2016, Karen released RIOT, an emotionally responsive, live-action film, with 3D sound, which uses facial recognition and A.I. technology to create the experience of navigating through a dangerous riot.

RIOT is like a choose-your-own-adventure, except that you determine the direction of the narrative through your subconscious emotional reaction to what’s on screen rather than through conscious decision-making. Likewise, the characters on screen react to the participant’s emotional state, opening up various narrative branches of the film depending on whether the participant is perceived to be angry or fearful by an A.I. that’s trained on facial expressions. 

Karen shares the story of a woman who participated in RIOT while it was on display at The Armory Show in New York City. On her first attempt, the participant’s fearful response to the film prevented her from progressing beyond the first part of the narrative. She disclosed to Karen that she struggled with alcohol addiction and wanted to go through RIOT again in order to better understand the triggers of her substance abuse. On subsequent attempts, the participant was able to proactively manage their subconscious fear response and progress further through the narrative. 

With RIOT, it makes people conscious of their subconscious behavior. So it makes you aware of how your emotions affect the narrative of the film. And in the exact same way, your emotions can affect the narrative of your life.”

Karen Palmer

Karen’s later projects take this emotional feedback loop even further while also exploring the issues of A.I. bias, social justice, and technology being wielded against vulnerable communities. 

Safer Cities or Surveillance State? 

Karen says that she’s become familiar with A.I. technology as a result of her efforts to authentically replicate the Black community’s experiences living under surveillance. 

One of her main concerns is bias in A.I. and the risk that institutional racism is just going to be automated.

She cites Detroit as an example, calling it the “most surveilled city in America,” where a law enforcement initiative, Project Greenlight, sold to the community as a crime deterrent has resulted in false arrests of multiple Black people. 

Project Greenlight began in 2016 as a public-private partnership between police and local businesses, enabling officers to monitor over 500 cameras installed in certain areas around the city. The initiative launched as a response to a spate of robberies, with officials telling residents that their communities would be safer under surveillance by police. 

A 2023 U.S. Justice Department study cast serious doubt on the program’s effectiveness in deterring and solving crimes. Detroit officials have disputed that study, but the same officials have also had to defend lawsuits from Black people who say the program contributed to their false imprisonment. 

Most recently, a pregnant Black woman became at least the third person to be falsely arrested after Detroit PD’s facial recognition software misidentified her as a suspect in a carjacking. The woman was arrested at her home while getting her kids ready for school and made to wait 11 hours in jail before her release. 

In 2020, a Black father was arrested in front of his two kids and jailed for 30 hours after being misidentified as a robbery suspect based on a facial recognition scan of grainy surveillance footage recorded at night. In response to Robert Williams’ lawsuit against Detroit PD, officials claimed that the false arrest was mainly a result of shoddy police work, highlighting how technology can exacerbate human bias and lend credibility to it. 

Often, these datasets really reflect the biases in society.”

Karen Palmer

Themes like this inspired Karen to create Perception iO, an experiential film similar to RIOT, with branching narratives determined by the participant’s reactions to what happens on screen. In this experience, however, the participant assumes the point of view of a police officer handling a hostile situation with both white and Black protagonists. Similar to RIOT, an A.I.-enabled camera monitors the participant’s facial cues to determine their emotional state and alter the course of the narrative accordingly. 

Perception iO helps participants recognize their own bias in real-time and develop strategies to manage their emotional responses. 

Dystopia Survival Training with A.I. 

While there’s plenty of dystopian nightmare fuel in our present timeline, Karen’s latest project transports participants to the near future, where A.I. surveillance is the norm and citizens are constantly monitored for compliance. 
Consensus Gentium is Latin for “if everyone believes it, it must be true.” The narrative of the interactive experience challenges viewers to navigate a world in which multiple pandemics and advanced global warming became the catalysts for the government to curtail citizens’ mobility. While on a quest to help their sick grandma, an A.I.-enabled camera analyzes over 50 cues on the participant’s face to determine their emotional state, which determines the participant’s level of compliance and, ultimately, how much mobility they’re able to achieve.

The film watches you back, and the narrative branches in real-time. And the ending you get is dependent on your representation of your beliefs and how you interact with society.”

Karen Palmer

The smartphone is a central piece of the experience, like the modern version of the living room television in 1984, monitoring citizens in their most private, intimate moments. In this way, the same technology that delights users with entertainment and connectivity is also the primary tool for the government to justify oppressing those users. 

The experience is an exploration of the potential threats posed to civil liberties by powerful surveillance technology, as well as the consequences of civil society opting-in to being monitored in ways they may not fully understand. 

That’s why Karen wants to put Consensus Gentium in the “hands of the masses and democratize the arts.” She’s planning to release the experience as a smartphone app in 2024, so that the public has the opportunity to glimpse a future that could be possible and also avoidable. 

The future is not something that happens to us, but it’s something that we create together.”

Karen Palmer

Through her efforts to help audiences see the future today, Karen considers herself part of an “invisible movement” of artists and thought leaders trying to demystify the transformative technologies of our time through art. Instead of watching their civil liberties gradually erode away by the relentless march of technology and consolidation of power, Karen wants to empower people to understand the narratives unfolding in real time, understand their role in the narrative, and ultimately, their role in the future. 

Karen’s Upcoming Events

  • London Film Festival Margaret Morning Panel Storyteller from the Future Sept 
  • London Film Festival Immersive Experience October 
  • Kaohsiung Film Festival XR Dreamland Immersive Experience October 
  • New Dimensions Lab South Africa Storyteller from the Future October
  • Geneva International Film Festival Immersive Experience November 
  • Immersive Tech Week Rotterdam Storyteller from the Future curated special event with Alex McDowel 

Links Mentioned in this Podcast

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Thank you, Karen, for being our guest on Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

Creativity Squared is brought to you by Sociality Squared, a social media agency who understands the magic of bringing people together around what they value and love: http://socialitysquared.com.

Because it’s important to support artists, 10% of all revenue Creativity Squared generates will go to ArtsWave, a nationally recognized non-profit that supports over 150 arts organizations, projects, and independent artists.

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