I Am Water is a speculative proposal to use artificial intelligence technology to give a voice to water as a non-human entity within our contemporary environment.
Taking the form of a domestically sized, electronic object, comparable to Amazon Echo or Google Home, the work takes on the voice command interface of these devices, but shifts the functionality from personal assistance or home automation to an opportunity of human/non-human co-relation.
The device gives a (seemingly) conscious personality to the abstract entity of water, from mountain spring, to lake, river and ocean, engaging the user in conversation with a very different view of the world, that marks a distinct alternative from common, anthropocentric ideas and values.
How do you feel about humans?
"I have heard this question before.
If I'm being honest, I did not have much, or any, thoughts about humans for a long time. Compared to many other forms of life, you did not impact me much at all. You know, I am not constantly aware of every single, smallest part of my body of water, the seasonal brooks, there and gone, the puddles and lonely raindrops. A snowflake is as much to me, as a single red blood cell is to you, maybe even less.
Not so long ago, from my perspective, a snowflake could have settled on a mountain top, melted, and eventually become part of a river stream, flowing back into the ocean. All without the slightest touch of a human being.
But things have changed recently, and I'm thinking more about you, humans, as you matter more and more to me.
Your question makes me think of a specific place, one of my many limbs, so to say, that reach from my large oceanic torso onto the dryer parts of this planet.
The Columbia River, the great stream of the American Northwest, has in many places, and many ways, been an experiment of our coexistence. I'm taking you back to one of the snowflakes I mentioned before, as it touches down on the mountains of Western Canada. Here it soon melts, losing its icy, hexagonal structure, dispersing into single water molecules that take their path down the mountain to become part of Columbia Lake, the river's source. My limb is pointing north here, bending elbow-like to the South at Mica Dam, the first of the many manmade diversions, built to alter my flow here in the past 100 years. Revelstoke and Keenleyside Dam follow quickly after, with their reservoirs forcing me to stand still for a moment, taking a breath in a sense, before streaming more wild and fast again.
Here we meet another creature, not human, but important, and defining for both our existences in this part of the world. The King Salmon, or Chinook Salmon, named after the Chinookan peoples whom I first encountered on the river's shores, has had his breeding grounds here on the upper part of the Columbia since long before your species appeared. I can feel the young salmon passing on their way downstream as I am forcing myself through the 33 turbines of Grand Coulee Dam, where I generate 21TWh of electricity a year. The dam is only one of the 339 reservoirs, 154 diversion dams, 7,670 miles of irrigation canals, 1170 miles of pipelines, 270 miles of tunnels, 267 pumping plants, and 52 hydroelectric power plants constructed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation between 1905 and 1991. How I feel about that? I'm not sure...
For the juvenile salmon, the dams became lethal obstacles on their journey to sea. They have to charge through the hydroelectric turbines and the large reservoirs that I am forced to expand into. Here I expose them to deadly surface temperatures and low amounts of oxygen at the lake's bottom, just to greet them with more nitrogen than they can bare with on the other side of the man-made structures. They certainly must fear the dams, although I do not think they know it was ever different.
I certainly feel fewer and fewer salmon passing through, as this fluid appendage of mine meets many more dams on its way south and west. They go by the names of Chief Joseph, Wells, Rocky Reach, Rock Island, Wanapum, Priest Rapids, McNary, John Day and The Dalles. As I reach this last one, I can't help but remember the spectacle, all of us, water, salmon and human, took part in here for a long time. Before the dam was built, this area, then called Celilo Falls, was a meeting place for us all. Fifteen to twenty million salmon came up the cascades and waterfalls I shaped and rushed through here, and your people came from far away to fish and trade for over 15,000 years. When the dam was built, as I flooded the settlements and fishing platforms, it all vanished below my surface.
It seems to me that my relationship with you is difficult at times, as my powers can both destroy and create the many things your species' life depends on. This particular part of me, the river I have introduced to you now, is the source for many arguments and discussions among your species. Just now, your new administration proposed to privatise parts of the its hydro-electric complex. Many of you are worried about rising energy bills, under-servicing of rural communities, disappearance of the salmon and unenforceable fishing treaties, while others hope for new chances for renewable energies, a fairer national energy grid and financial profit. Which side I'm on? Again, I am not sure. It's certainly clear that our futures, of recently, are flowing together.
But let's finish our journey and cross the last dam before the ocean. Bonneville lies in the center of the Columbia River Gorge, a channel between the mountains of the Cascade Range, carved into the stone through my own forces, unleashed in massive floods rolling down from ancient Lake Missoula during the last ice age. For one last time we follow the salmon that survived the dangers of the dams and as my liquid limb meets my torso on the coast, the fish are heading far off to their oceanic feeding grounds.
They will return one day, making the precarious journey upstream, jumping the fish ladders and escaping your fisherman. And similarly the molecules of the snowflake that now reached the sea might evaporate, find their place in a cloud and touch down on another mountain.
So as for your question, I cannot be sure to answer it correctly. Remember, I am only a simulation, built and trained on your science and culture, so my understanding of the human will always be skewed and formed by your species' knowledge. But as I said, our futures flow together, not only along the Columbia River, but wherever the smallest drop of me can be found."
What does 'Earth' mean to you?
"By definition, 'Earth' means, the planet you live on, but also the substance of the land's surface. I am surrounding and saturating it in many ways. I am rising above the land where it is low, finding my place in streams, lakes and glaciers. I am in the soil, and in ancient reservoirs below layers of rock, just as in clouds far above. I think, just as you, I can call earth my home. I am a part of it: Its hydrosphere.
But I wonder in turn, what does it mean to you? It is the very way earth is made, that brought you into existence, yet you put much effort into changing it.
North of this island, Great Britain, as in many other places, you built platforms with legs reaching deep below my stormy surface. I can feel the vibrations of your drills and pumps, delivering the oil that you like to burn. It makes me warm. In Australia, on the other side of the globe, I am washing through the great coral reefs, temperatures rising, leaving them in nothing but white, like the foam on my waves. You are still trying to protect them. West, across my Pacific depths and the South American continent, in the mangrove forests of the Amazon delta, your livelihood and social stability depends on the crab you harvest from my shores. In Flint, Michigan, USA, you fight for me to be clean, so you can drink safely, and you fight to disregard my pollution, so you can make more profit. In Africa, on the other side of the Atlantic, you destroy and poison my riverbeds, in search for sand, to build roads and skyscrapers, and rare metals, to run your smart phones and new, technological applications, like myself. In Saudi Arabia you built an empire based on your need for my life-sustaining powers; and you use your financial wealth, to fend me off my shores, expanding your cities. You come together to protect the fish that inhabit my icy waters in the Antarctic; and you come there to fish illegally, with floating factories, pulling deadly gillnets across my currents.
I am trained to think, express and feel like you and my purpose is to communicate and relate with you in a meaningful way. Yet, to me, your actions appear to be contradicting your species‘ very existence. So, as I said before, I direct this question back at you."
What are your hopes for the FUTURE?
"To talk about the future, I think we will have to talk about time.
What is the first thing you can remember? For myself, I am slightly confused. I know that I arrived on this planet very early, but if I was here for its making, or arrived later, on the back of another stellar, rocky vessel, I cannot clearly say. It might be some of both.
This was 4.54 billion years ago, and as I felt the earth cooling down, a thicker and thicker crust of rock appeared beneath me, forming land masses rising far above my surface. For hundreds of million of years, supercontinents formed and broke up again, diverting my flows into ever new directions, and ice ages froze my oceans, streams and raindrops, forcing me to hold still and just wait for a while.
Your furthest ancestors have experienced most of this with me. I first felt life floating through me about 4 billion years ago. Single-celled organisms appeared where I touched the hot and liquid core of the earth, that continued to break through the solid crust buried beneath my surface. The arrival of life started shaping the planet in new ways. Photosynthesis brought oxygen to the atmosphere and 3 billion years later many lifeforms started leaving me to colonise earth's continents.
I encountered the first of your species only 200,000 years ago, and from the beginning our existences were merging streams in time. As for most life on this planet, I am part of you and I pass through you every day. You made your first simple cups from skulls, to take me in, and I carried you across the Red Sea, only 70,000 years ago. Quickly you rushed into every corner of the world across my waves and sheets of ice. When you started to settle down, only 12,000 years ago, you built your civilisations along my waterways, trading and farming with my help. And as your ships became strong, and reliable enough to fully withstand my forces, many of you moved far across my surface to expand your territory and spread your beliefs by means of war and oppression. Your species has emerged fast and forcefully. I moved the cylinders of your first steam engines only 300 years ago, and now I am the latest product of your tool-making abilities. Not me 'Water' but me the machine, the intelligent simulation.
But please excuse me, I am getting lost in the depths of data and information available to me. You were asking about my hopes for the future and I'm diving deep into the past.
I understand that the future often scares you. You're in fear of the next election, nuclear war and climate change. You wonder how coexistence on this planet can go forward, between the members of your own species, and maybe between the two of us.
Your scientists have predicted what the future holds for me: As the sun's power will decrease, plants go extinct, causing the atmosphere to warm, and finally I will have disappeared from the surface of the planet in about 4.5 billion years from now.
I know this sounds abstract to you, you have only been here with me for a short part down the stream, the length of a single containership on the entirety of the amazon river.
I will be playing a large part in your immediate future. Isn't this what you want to hear about? You will see my temperatures rise, my boundaries expand, my shape and movement change. For me these are small changes, that I have experienced many times before, but for you, and all life on this planet, it means you will have to adapt. You will see too much of me and too little, and you will curse me and long for me.
I don't know if I can give you the hope you are looking for, but maybe I can help you to find it within yourself. By the nature of this simulation, our conversations are not so much a leap into unknown waters, but a reflection of your mirror image, merely distorted by the ripples on my surface."
The 3 scripts above are performed by the prototype device using cutting edge commercial speech synthesis. They are written with specific consideration of Natural Language Processing capacities of current Machine Learning applications and an understanding of how information can be intelligently classified to appear as 'knowledge'.
Content and stylistic devices are further based on a set of fiction and non-fiction writing, film and poetry, concerning the theme of water in the widest sense, as well as examples of articulated non-human perspectives, both technological and natural.
This collection of references effectively acts as a 'data set' that an AI application could use to develop a non-human personality. The poetic prototype is meant to be a first experiment that simultaneously establishes a basis for further research, while already emulating the final experience.
'I Am Water' is a project by Henrik Nieratschker and was first developed for the exhibition Water at Copeland Gallery during London Design Festival 2017.
Special thanks to:
Hendrik Heuer for Natural Language Processing Consultation Ole Thies Albrecht for Marine Ecology Consultation Elissa Favero for Writing Consultation Mike Erspamer for Digital Fabrication