Augury is an installation that draws predictions of the future from the live positions of planes in a 20km radius around it. This is an allusion to the ancient Greek and Roman practice of Augury – a method of divination performed by reading the flight patterns of birds.
The neural network at the core of the project has been trained on months of data correlating the longitude, altitude and latitude of all planes in a 20km radius with tweets containing the word ‘future’ also from a 20km radius. By training the network on these correlating data sets, we can synthesise new prognostications about the future from current plane positions. Audience members produce these predictions by speaking aloud the phrase “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”.
The projection shows live data of the current positions of planes directly above the installation and in a 20km radius. The planes are visualised as murmurations of sparrows – a natural phenomena where a flock of sparrows move in dazzling patterns displaying properties of emergent complexity. This is also a technical fix to the limited and imperfect freely available ADSB plane data.
Both the chorus of voices that chant each prediction and Augury’s speech detection are produced by machine learning systems in Google and Amazon’s underground data centres. This is the same infrastructure that these companies and many others use for their own attempts at prediction, such as guessing the future behaviours, shopping habits, and political leanings of their users.
The multiple applications of machine learning used in Augury combine as a parody of the contemporary obsession with algorithmic prediction, and the capacities and limitations of the neural networks which underpin it.
Augury is a collaboration between myself and Tobias Revell, for Everything Happens So Much as part of London Design Festival 2018.