The dawn chorus is one of the wonders of the natural world, but a discordant note will be struck when a soundtrack of hundreds of birds is heard in London this month. The chiffchaffs, great tits, redstarts, robins and thrushes almost sound like the real thing, but they have been created by a machine as part of a major art installation warning of an apocalyptic world where Britain’s bird population has been allowed to diminish, The Guardian reports.
The synthetic bird sounds are the creation of the artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who has worked with scientists at an AI company more used to researching Donald Trump deepfake videos to create the work.
Through the installation, opening on 31 October within the vaulted chapel of Somerset House’s Embankment Galleries, Ginsberg says birdlife is under threat from modern urban lifestyles, with the cacophony of city life taking its toll.
Birds sing to warn of danger, woo mates and establish territory. Against light and noise pollution, they struggle to be heard, risking vocal injury, while mating patterns are also disrupted, leading to falling populations.
In the installation, a natural dawn chorus is taken over by the sound of artificial birds. With the sound designer Chris Timpson of Aurelia Soundworks, the artist has combined recordings of real birds with machine-generated responses, which are distinguishable by the machine-like distortion.
Ginsberg said: “We chose species that would be found in an urban area … All are affected by the encroachment of sound and light pollution. Even building shapes affect how birds sing.
“My work has been about our relationship with nature … I want the piece to ask difficult questions. What would we replace [birds] with and what do we lose? It will make us feel uncomfortable … but the piece will be enjoyable to listen to.”
She added: “Urban birds such as sparrows, blackbirds and great tits have been found to sing higher, louder, and earlier, putting them at risk of predators. Near airports, blackbirds sing for longer and modify their song. Research has shown the chorus starting 23.8 minutes earlier in those environments.”
This year, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) released a track of pure birdsong to raise awareness of the loss of over 40 million birds from the UK in just 50 years. It warned that the sound could be lost for ever as 56% of species in the UK were in decline.Advertisement
Ginsberg, who studied at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Art, has exhibited worldwide, including at the MoMA in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She creates artworks, writings and curatorial projects that focus on ecology and technology. An earlier collaborative project resurrected the smell of extinct flowers, extracting DNA from a pressed hibiscus specimen.
She has collaborated with Faculty, a London-based AI company, one of the leading researchers into AI-generated deepfakes of humans and of ways to combat their misuse. They worked with an NGO called Alliance of Democracies, set up by the former Danish prime minister and Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to highlight the threat to democratic elections posed by political misinformation in the form of AI-generated deepfakes of politicians making controversial or inflammatory statements. As part of that work, Faculty built an AI deepfake Donald Trump and also worked on a detector to help people identify when a piece of audio or video is fake.
The company also runs a fellowship programme for science PhDs, during which they can work on an AI project for a company, charity or, as in this case, an artist.
By adapting a technique known as the generative adversarial network (GAN), which has been used to generate lifelike fake images of human beings, they have been able “to learn and generate” the songs of different bird species.
Ginsberg said: “Not much work has been done with sound so far. We’re feeding thousands of individual recorded bird solos into the system to generate increasingly realistic clips of birdsong.”
Synthetic sounds will be mixed with real sounds of species such as blackbirds, goldfinches, flycatchers and wood pigeons to create a 10-minute version of a dawn chorus.
She said: “It will start with one bird singing, a natural bird – we’re choosing a redstart, which is normally one of the first birds to sing. That bird will sing his song solo. Normally the redstart would sing and he’d be saying, ‘I’m in this tree, I’m here,’ and another redstart would sing back. Instead, we have a machine singing back to him.”
The work, titled Machine Auguries, will be accompanied by a light installation that mimics the rising dawn, beginning with “a blue-grey, silverly predawn light”, according to Ginsberg.