“The whale population is just three per cent of what it was at the start of the 19th century. So, imagine how many whales were killed at that point, ”says Uma Khardekar, the creative director behind the Whale Tales Project.
The dreary fact is one among many her team came across while “collaborating” with open-source Artificial Intelligence (AI) to highlight how whales can combat climate change. Encapsulated in an interactive storybook, the project, however, aims to stay away from the dystopian narratives that often inform climate conversations, choosing instead to fascinate the viewer through futuristic, abstract artwork.
Produced through AI software, the images offer a surreal view of the undersea as they take you on a journey along with the main characters – Migaloo, a humpback whale, Noc, a Beluga whale, and Mocha, a sperm whale. The book’s text, generated through GPT-3, a language AI, and edited by Khardekar and Nikita Teresa Sarkar, hopes to educate young readers, by attaching scientific facts to a fictional narrative.
“The first step is ‘I want to know more’. ‘How can I help’ comes next. So, while developing the narratives, we wanted to create that intrigue, ”says Khardekar.
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The storybook allows the reader to choose the action the whale takes, thereby manipulating the plot. The empathetic gameplay manifests itself in a digital form on the project’s website, Whalesforclimate.orgwhere the ocean soundscape and accompanying visuals encourage the viewer to learn about carbon sequestration, whale hunters and a phenomenon known as the “whale pump”, responsible for the growth of phytoplankton.
The team plans to build on the character arcs, add other whales and, eventually, offer an augmented reality experience through installations and workshops.
“Climate action is really a behavioral change. We felt targeting the younger audience was much more effective because we can shape minds by creating awareness. We wanted to do it through empathetic gameplay because experiential knowledge holds much more value than just theoretical knowledge, ”explains Sarkar.
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The Whale Tales embraces real-life heroes found across the coasts of Canada to Australia. Noc astounded researchers by mimicking human speech, while Migaloo is a one-of-its-kind albino humpback. “Right now, the stories are at an introductory stage – we are introducing the characters, making them fun. They will eventually take on a more serious note, getting back to reality. For instance, with Mocha, who was responsible for destroying several whaling ships, we want to bring forth the toxicity of whalers that created the crisis today, ”says Khardekar.
The team comprising Khardekar, Sarkar, Sayak Shome, a new-media artist, Padmanabhan J, a sound artist, and Arnab Chakravarty, an AR-and-tech expert, came together virtually amid the pandemic through a fellowship aimed at facilitating projects on the intersection of AI and climate change.
Shome recognizes the “inherent contradiction” in humans – the actors behind the deterioration – talking about climate change. Moreover, the tech employed in the communication itself relies on undersea cables which disturb the ocean ecology. “In spite of these contradictions, it’s important to employ tech art in these conversations. So much of our lives revolve around tech. One can play this game on their mobile phones, and through it, hopefully, we can create some action towards preserving whales, ”says Shome.
The AI’s role in the project also puts forward larger philosophical questions. “It was interesting to see how AI, a new, futuristic being, creates imaginations of a being as ancient as the whale,” says Shome. Explaining how the text and images of the book have been “hallucinated” by the AI after being fed prompts, Chakravarty says, “This AI is the only way we’d be able to generate images of whales or any other animal if they die out. ”
The Whale Tales aims to take a step in preventing that. Championing individual action in the face of an insurmountable crisis, the project wants to invoke the thought, “let me save something.” “I think about the future, about the world and what kind of a place I’m leaving for my child, “Khardekar says, adding,” Sometimes, instead of coming up with a high-tech solution, it’s far easier to save something that already exists. “