We often think about artificial intelligence in terms of what we can use it for. But what if AIs sometimes need us instead? What happens when the therapist becomes the patient?
Cassie McQuater's game Eliza poses these questions to the player, with the added thematic layer of women's identity in the digital space. It's inspired by ELIZA, a famous chat bot conceived by Joseph Weizenbaum in the 1960s to see whether a machine could be a therapist — but in McQuater's work, the roles are reversed.
Rather than a distant but efficiently-compassionate female AI, McQuater re-imagines Eliza as a startled polygonal girl gliding in surreal digital space, her image suggesting Hatsune Miku by way of Pikachu. As the player guides her through her odd inner world ("psychedelic mazes," suggests McQuater), they can speak with her in a chat window just as they would with the original Eliza. Except this time, it feels like the bot is not trying to predict our needs, but asking us to manage hers.
"Themes include: depression, web-femininity, gaze. Her dataset will change over time as I 'diary' into her," McQuater tells me.
The addition of a webcam window to the experience is startling, showing us our own face and expression, making us conscious of our own gaze while we alternately manipulate and attempt, ideally, to emotionally support this digital person. "Sometimes I annoy myself," Eliza confides in me, as pink rose petals spill down my browser screen until they all but obscure my own image.
For me, this Eliza game captures the sense of vulnerability in general that comes with being a woman who "performs" online, and the last-gen net art aesthetic suggests a lot of my generation's scrappy, formative years online, scouring the bowels of the early web for human contact and a sense of belonging. Talking to bots and machines because we needed their presence, hoping they would talk back.