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Milly FarrellBlog post by Milly Farrell, Engagement Manager, Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities

The Merging Minds multiplayer art installation will be available to visit in Oxford between 11 - 21 May 2023.

On 11 May 2023, the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities (WEH) will be launching a new exhibition in collaboration with artists in residence Yambe Tam and Albert Barbu.

This co-created project began in October 2022 when Yambe and Albert embarked on a 9-month residency with the WEH. The artist duo have been working alongside the ‘Rethinking Collective Minds’ research group to explore major ethical and philosophical issues pertaining to emerging technologies for collective thinking.

The research team are investigating how novel constellations of brains and computers challenge conceptions and ethical frameworks for collective thinking and decision-making. This work will address questions such as: what does it mean for a Collective Mind to have an identity?; what becomes of the individual in an increasingly connected world?; what are the rights and responsibilities of an individual within a collective?

The exhibition in May aims to capture and fuse philosophical, ethical, technological, and artistic dimensions of such questions. Our artist partners have developed a multiplayer art experience that challenges these perspectives and invites public audiences to participate in exploring this virtual world. In turn, this residency and its public events have and will continue to inform and shape the WEH’s ongoing and emerging research around ‘Rethinking Collective Minds’.

One of our artists in residence, Yambe Tam, offers her thoughts on the project so far:

What would it be like to belong to a collective mind? The brain-computer technologies making this possible are increasingly available, enabling humans to use novel ways of collective thinking and decision-making as a merged-mind. With these new ways of being come ethical and philosophical questions - for example, around responsibility, ownership, and identity.

We are in the process of collaborating with the ‘Rethinking Collective Minds’ research team at the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, to form a creative response to these questions. The resulting art video game invites people to enter a three dimensional labyrinth as merged-mind avatars - multiple players embodying the same bodies - negotiating and collaborating with each other to navigate challenges. It simulates some of the problems collective minds could face in the future around decision-making, the economy of merging, and attachment to identity. Rather than offering any definitive answer to these questions, our approach was to create the conditions to observe how people would intuitively react in these situations, like a virtual laboratory.

In the game, merging with other ‘players’ simulates the experience of joining a collective mind. This blurring of boundaries between self and other, is translated into a spiritual experience of transcendence that we hope sparks considerations of how much participants are willing to surrender individual identities, interests, and motives on behalf of a wider form of being.

We have immensely enjoyed working with the Rethinking Collective Minds research team as artists in residence over the past eight months. The multiplayer videogame we have created is something of a virtual laboratory where we simulate the experience of embodying collective minds.

Young people with WEH artists in residence at a one-day gaming event.

In order to create a virtual world that encourages public audiences to consider our key research questions, we have also collaborated with the NEUROSEC Young Person’s Advisory Group (YPAG) and two local high schools; The Cherwell and Wheatley Park. In February, the artists and WEH team coordinated a one-day gaming event for 25 young people. The aim of this event was to gain insight into how young people viewed virtual and digital worlds, where there are blurred distinctions between the collective and the individual. Through the feedback gathered from these participants (and with thanks to the peer facilitation of the YPAG), we were able to input their responses into a new digital gaming experience developed by Yambe and Albert.

One member of the NEUROSEC YPAG, Sophie Pannett-Smith offers her thoughts on the project so far and reflects on her involvement:

“I have found it all very interesting and have learned lots through these projects. I love the idea of collective minds and everyone being involved and hearing multiple perspectives. I think it is vital to get the opinions of many people. It makes the research more engaging and it offers new opinions, hearing what the artists also think about the research. I think it is a really fun idea of mixing research with art; it is creating a new type of research, which is very appealing and interesting to listen to and watch.

The researchers have always been super welcoming and engaging. I have enjoyed watching and seeing how passionate the researchers are around their projects. It will also show people research isn’t just about sitting at a computer, or long articles; there are many new and fun ways research can be carried out. I have really enjoyed hearing the researchers talk about their projects and goals and aims for this and also to be involved in the development of this project; I feel I am part of it and enabled to see it change, adapt and grow.”

‘Merging Minds’ will be on display from 11 – 21 May 2023, at Fusion Arts, 95 Gloucester Green, Oxford OX1 2BU. The exhibition is free and open to all. Please check the WEH events pages for information on opening times.