David Young on the Threat to Blockchain

An interview with David Young around his upcoming exhibition Quantum Drawings by Verse's own Leyla Fakhr.

What  inspires you as an artist?

I have always been inspired by the inherent tension between the worlds that technologies can open to us and the world as we experience it. This is at the heart of what I’m exploring in this series.

Since my earliest days I’ve been interested in and inspired by exploring new capacities and extensions of the human mind.  Emerging technologies — particularly digital computational ones, in essence, enable new ways of extending our own consciousness. I see them as offering a promise of something new — a new way to engage with information, with people, and even the world. They are a prompt for us, a “reminder” that the way in which we exist today isn’t static, and that, perhaps, there are better ways to do things. And so much of my career has been harnessing new technologies in order to create new ways to see the world.

However, I see both utopias and dystopias in new technologies. A few years ago, as modern AI and machine learning emerged as the next wave, the optimism that I had felt transitioned into a grave concern. The previous technologies that we thought were going to be so positively transformative — things like the web, mobile, social media — have had massive unintended negative consequences. And as a result, we’ve become a fragmented society, with democracy seemingly on the verge of collapse. Bias and inequality are being exacerbated by new technologies, and the monocultures of the big tech companies is increasingly difficult to penetrate, especially in order to increase diversity.

And so my work now seeks to approach new technologies from an initial perspective of inexpertise. I want to see how new, non-technical, intuitions can be developed, and I strongly believe that art is a way to do that — and to involve everyone. While I might not have said this five or ten years ago, today I am an absolute believer that technical proficiency can not be a requirement to shape our collective future.

Tell me more about the Quantum Drawings, what are they about?

Quantum computing, based on quantum physics, is just amazingly and fantastically weird. It breaks the speed of light, it’s so powerful that it theoretically involves computers in parallel universes, it may be a gateway to other versions of ourselves and alternate realities. With all that, how can you not want to understand it more or at least explore it? That’s really what this work is about.

And while quantum computing is still years, or possibly decades, from becoming powerful enough to outperform traditional computers, it has the potential to radically change how we think of computing and what computers can do. And, like AI and machine learning, it’s radically different from any technology that’s come before. So it’s critically important for people, if not to understand it, to be aware of it and what it might mean.

My Quantum Drawings are a continuation of my non-technical approach of working with an emerging technology in order to develop an intuition for it, and to create works that both document my journey, and, hopefully, capture the imagination of the viewer.

Of course “non-technical” is a relative term. I am using real-life quantum computers (in my case from IBM Quantum) and getting very strange-looking code (called circuits) to run. The program’s output is an indecipherable text file which I then interpret with my own custom software. And over several generations of my own code, I’ve found new ways of looking at that data and getting a sense of what is happening. So it’s not as simple as feeding images into an AI/GAN and looking at the results… there is a lot of code to get one of my drawings. But, again, quantum is so strange, that it still feels like what I’m doing is barely touching what’s unique about it.

What I really enjoy about working in this mode is that the images that emerge are both familiar and unexpected. I think there is a familiarity because they’re the output of my code, and so it has my fingerprint deep within it; and the unexpected is a result of quantum strangeness.

You explain that your work uses artificial intelligence and quantum computing as a means to observe how aesthetically beautiful images give us intuitions for new technologies. Tell me more about this, how is this stimulated?

Beauty is the key. Beauty is the secret. In my work, beauty is really a Trojan Horse that draws someone in and excites their curiosity. Beauty triggers aesthetic experiences that get people to drop their preconceived barriers and fears — particularly around technology — draws them in. And it’s from there that the strangeness of the underlying technology can begin to emerge and start a longer dialog.

These Quantum works take something very technical — with concepts like entanglement, superposition and decoherence — and give visual form to it. As I’ve worked I’ve begun to understand the unique scales of quantum computing and quantum physics. The strangest is in regards to quantum bits. A ‘bit’ in a traditional computer has a value of either 0 or 1. But a ‘quantum bit’ contains both values simultaneously. It’s only when you look to see its value does it become either 0 or 1. But there is a theory that, at that moment of interrogation, the universe splits — there are now two universes, one where the quantum bit is 0, and another where it is 1.

This splitting is the basis for the multiverse — the concept that every possible universe exists simultaneously. (And I’ll add that I find this profoundly optimistic. There are perfect worlds out there.) These drawings are each, essentially, fragments of an infinitely large map of the multiverse.

I am interested in the constant navigation between logic and intuition, how do you navigate this as an artist who works within those parameters?

I’ve been coding for my entire adult life, nearly 4 decades, coding is and always has been a means of expression for me. So for me this logic/intuition dichotomy barely exists. I find programming to be an intuitive process and really enjoy the idea of sketching, and then creating, using code. For me art and code are one and the same, inseparable.

Where do you think the future of art lies?

That’s a huge question. The future of art is unlimited and simultaneous, there is no single future.  

However, this work is an exploration of one particular future path: NFT’s. While NFT’s are a real and persistent strand of this future, NFTs are not the end, there will be something post-NFT — there’s always a next-thing, another emerging technology poised to become the next future.

That said there is an irony in this work specifically. My Quantum Drawings are in a sense a provocation to the belief of the persistence of blockchain based art, because quantum computing has the theoretical potential to destroy the blockchain. When you collect a quantum drawing as an NFT you in essence are capturing a moment, an image and expression of the very technology that might destroy that NFT.

We don’t know for certain, because quantum computing is still in its most embryonic stage. But its development threatens the cryptography that makes the blockchain secure. With current computers it would take longer than the age of the universe to break the blockchain’s security. But when we reach “quantum supremacy” — that is, when quantum computers can outperform traditional computers — the blockchain’s security could be broken in just moments. Perhaps rendering all NFTs worthless.

It’s a reminder that the new technology of the blockchain is not the final or ultimate one. There will be others.

Leyla Fakhr

Leyla Fakhr is Artistic Director at Verse. After working at the Tate for 8 years, she worked as an independent curator and producer across various projects internationally. During her time at Tate she was part of the acquisition team and worked on a number of collection displays including John Akomfrah, ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ and ‘Migrations, Journeys into British Art’. She is the editor...
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David Young

David Young has spent his entire career at the leading edge of emerging technologies. Throughout all of his work – from projects at the dawn of the web or using early supercomputers, to contemporary global innovation and artistic initiatives – David has been a champion of new forms of creativity and expression enabled by technology. His current work, using artificial intelligence and quantum...
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