A and I – Karen Palmer: The Future Storyteller

by Asumpta Lattus

What impact does AI have on the film industry? Meet Karen Palmer, the London-based filmmaker as she tells what motivated her to make her emotionally empowering film RIOT. Karen is the storyteller of the future and an award-winning international artist

In this episode we are talking about the future of storytelling. Karen Palmer is a filmmaker using new approaches in storytelling and is, so far, the only artist combining neurogaming films and parkour. Her pilot film, RIOT, which was made in 2016, is an emotionally responsive film that watches you as you watch it. Using artificial intelligence and facial recognition, it creates a virtual reality as the user steps into a live site installation to interact the film. Join us as we immerse ourselves in her world and find empowerment.

How should I imagine watching RIOT in this live installation? Is it like a movie theater?

It’s like a movie theater but for one. So you stand inside and there’s a projection of a film in front of you and around you there are debris from a riot. And before you even go into the installation, there’s a cop in uniform who asks what you are there for and if you have any weapons on you or if you have something on you that could be used as a weapon.  Some people say my phone, my glasses… or one lady considered her mind could be used as a weapon. So you are ready to start engaging and interacting with the experience. In the room there is a smell of smoke and in front of the room there is a huge projection. The film is actually watching you as you watch it through the webcam. Surrounding you is Ambisonic sound with eight speakers. The narrative of the film will branch depending on your emotional response.

Do I have to wear anything to get into this emotional response? How is this translated into the action?

I don’t actually use wearable tech. I created an artificial intelligence system which uses a library of emotions. The system monitors you through the webcam for the signs of calmness, anger, and fear. And depending on your responses, the narrative of the film will branch in real time.

Can I break the experience at any time?

Many people don’t really want to go. They want to stay there till they reach the conclusion of the experience. And then it becomes an almost cathartic experience.

So you can actually get out at any time if you think that this is getting you somewhere you didn’t want to go. But it sounds like you’re hacking my mind. How does this process happen?

No, just to mention one of the people who partook in this experience, a man, became afraid while watching and engaging. You know, particularly for men they don’t want to be afraid, right? He broke the experience and said, “I don’t think that’s working,” and he didn’t want another go immediately. But after a few minutes he decided to have another go. He managed to get to the end of the experience because the second time around he was calm and the first time, he said, he thought he was calm but he wasn’t. So the experience made him more conscious of his subconscious and it made him aware of his reactions.

Is that the purpose of you making the movie?

That was one of the many goals. There are several and the newest one I’m still working on.

What are the other goals?

I want to enable people to learn how to navigate their own personal fear. I believe the thing holding us back in life more than anything else is fear. And fear often doesn’t even exist. Often when you’re scared of something, it is proceeded by the word “if”; for example: if I leave my job that I hate, then maybe I can’t afford my rent, I’ll become homeless. People allow fear to kind of paralyze them. Fear should be a mechanism of survival or a warning system but it should not paralyze you. But that’s what happens. They are in a state of fear – either internally or from the media. There’s some anxiety that’s paralyzing us personally, and sometimes on a global scale. I want people to master their own fear. Another objective is to empower people: to give people deep insight so that we can all come together and make a difference.  

Asumpta Lattus and Karen Palmer, the Storyteller of the Future AI Riot
Karen Palmer

That sounds like psychology. Is this also one of your expertise aside from making movies using AI?

One of my biggest passions in life is parkour and I’ve been doing parkour on and off for ten years. During this time I was able to learn how to level and master myself through parkour and became familiar with fear on a regular basis. That made me move through fear and learn to not be scared of it and to have a healthy respect for fear and then learn to reprogram myself in my life. I also have a strong passion for self-development and spirituality, particularly in terms of social issues happening to black people; whether it’s dealing with the police or people of color from the government. I am just trying to help every individual to rise up within themselves.  If we can’t empower ourselves, and we can’t empower our community, and we can’t change our situation. So everything comes with the revolution of self.

Pretty interesting. Is that what triggered you to use AI in storytelling?

About 15 years ago, I was working in the music industry and directed music videos. I became very aware of the power of linear films and how they affect people. But then I realized that technology was the future; technology is the language of young people. So for the past 15 years I’ve been exploring filmmaking and technology. The trigger were the events happening in America in 2016 and, in particular, the shootings of young black boys, like Michael Brown, by the police. This was heartbreaking and people were given misinformation or only responding to the media. This is the time I started asking myself how I would feel if  I were in this situation, and asking people how they would feel, regardless of color or gender. Maybe they would have a different perception of realities. So that was one of the basic reasons for the concept.

Where can this kind of movie be watched? In a normal movie theater?

The riot prototype was designed as a proof concept to see if this would even work. I created the AI system and the facial recognition film from scratch. So it’s a test pilot to see how this experience works. And it works extremely well on many levels. So the vision is that then I create the final RIOT installation, which is a multiplayer experience and then a riot app iteration that you download to your mobile device. With this one you won’t need to go to an installation or art festival to watch the movie. You can actually experience it in your own home.

 When will this final iteration come out?

I’m speaking to different partners. I’m hoping to identify more partners this year to complete it.

What kinds of challenges have you encountered along the way while creating such a movie?

During the production I was meeting challenges everyday. Like, the technology didn’t work because we’re creating something completely bespoke. So just to get the damn thing to work was a major challenge. Making it work for a small amount of money was a major challenge. Finding the user experience, researching the user experience, having partners drop out, having another partnership and they dropped out. There are so many different components of this jigsaw puzzle and they all have to work together.

And how do you get through those?  

I believe. And I believe that this is going to work and I will keep going until I find a way and also I speak quite a lot to my parents who are like my mentors.  But I just have to believe.

What kind of people want to watch RIOT and what feedback have you been getting?

People all over the world. I don’t even show RIOT anymore because it’s a very big commitment to show it. It’s a very big installation to set up. I’m trying to focus on the final iteration. So it’s kind of developing a life of its own because people see it and they tell every other people. People see it and they come back the next day, they want to talk to me about the impact it had upon them.

So what do people say? Does it leave a bad impact or what impact does it have?

I will give you the example of one woman. In the experience of RIOT, you normally see a riot environment and a young black girl being arrested. So there was this woman who was brought up in Argentina, which was, back then, a military state. Every time she moved, as a child in Argentina, she would get stopped by the police in the same way as the young girl in RIOT. So when she saw that and experienced this first hand, it triggered her and she realized that she had internalized a lot of those childhood feelings. For all these years she thought she was okay, but as she came out of the experience she realized that she wasn’t: living in the military environment had really affected her psychologically. Before that she’d never dealt with it. The experience made her relive all these things again. It’s kind of gotten an emotional decompression component. As an artist, I normally have this responsibility to kind of make sure the person watching the move is okay afterwards.

Karen Palmer, The Storyteller from the Future AI Riot
Karen Palmer

Among many challenges facing AI is bias. How can it be dealt with or resolved?

One way is to have more diversity so that there’s not just a certain demographic of people creating the software for the masses. A lot of the things around us, even like the size of the iPhone, are designed by men. That’s why it’s slightly too big for the hand of a woman. We need to have more gender diversity and more color diversity in the people creating these systems so that they can be designed more equally, for everybody. There are other examples of AI where the consequences are way more catastrophic. Take a system called compass in New York, which is used to support a judge when they are sentencing a criminal. It has been proven to be biased against people of color. It suggests giving people of color heavier jail sentences.

And what is a no-go in AI for you?

A no-go is having no diversity in the people that create these systems. There needs to be policies and regulations – or at least transparency – in terms of these systems because, at the moment, there aren’t any and lots of systems are becoming automated and we’re not aware of the repercussions of those automations. And the go-go is the opposite: democratization of AI which means I want to bring AI to the masses. Why should governments and corporations be the only ones creating AI?

What is the AI gadget you would like to have? Do you have a favorite?

AI is all around us. People don’t realize that your Netflix is deciding your film selection. And my favorite is the one being designed by me. I just I made my software accessible so that people can access it. I need this stuff to be in the hands of the people.

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