Amit Sood
1,143,463 views • 15:00

The world is filled with incredible objects and rich cultural heritage. And when we get access to them, we are blown away, we fall in love. But most of the time, the world's population is living without real access to arts and culture. What might the connections be when we start exploring our heritage, the beautiful locations and the art in this world?

Before we get started in this presentation, I just want to take care of a few housekeeping points. First, I am no expert in art or culture. I fell into this by mistake, but I'm loving it. Secondly, all of what I'm going to show you belongs to the amazing museums, archives and foundations that we partner with. None of this belongs to Google. And finally, what you see behind me is available right now on your mobile phones, on your laptops.

This is our current platform, where you can explore thousands of museums and objects at your fingertips, in extremely high-definition detail. The diversity of the content is what's amazing. If we just had European paintings, if we just had modern art, I think it gets a bit boring. For example, this month, we launched the "Black History" channel with 82 curated exhibitions, which talk about arts and culture in that community. We also have some amazing objects from Japan, centered around craftsmanship, called "Made in Japan." And one of my favorite exhibitions, which actually is the idea of my talk, is — I didn't expect to become a fan of Japanese dolls. But I am, thanks to this exhibition, that has really taught me about the craftsmanship behind the soul of a Japanese doll. Trust me, it's very exciting. Take my word for it.

So, moving on swiftly. One quick thing I wanted to showcase in this platform, which you can share with your kids and your friends right now, is you can travel to all these amazing institutions virtually, as well. One of our recent ideas was with The Guggenheim Museum in New York, where you can get a taste of what it might feel like to actually be there. You can go to the ground floor and obviously, most of you, I assume, have been there. And you can see the architectural masterpiece that it is. But imagine this accessibility for a kid in Bombay who's studying architecture, who hasn't had a chance to go to The Guggenheim as yet. You can obviously look at objects in the Guggenheim Museum, you can obviously get into them and so on and so forth. There's a lot of information here.

But this is not the purpose of my talk today. This exists right now. What we now have are the building blocks to a very exciting future, when it comes to arts and culture and accessibility to arts and culture. So I am joined today onstage by my good friend and artist in residence at our office in Paris, Cyril Diagne, who is the professor of interactive design at ECAL University in Lausanne, Switzerland. What Cyril and our team of engineers have been doing is trying to find these connections and visualize a few of these.

So I'm going to go quite quick now. This object you see behind me — oh, just clarification: Always, seeing the real thing is better. In case people think I'm trying to replicate the real thing. So, moving on. This object you see behind me is the Venus of Berekhat Ram. It's one of the oldest objects in the world, found in the Golan Heights around 233,000 years ago, and currently residing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is also one of the oldest objects on our platform.

So let's zoom. We start from this one object. What if we zoomed out and actually tried to experience our own cultural big bang? What might that look like? This is what we deal with on a daily basis at the Cultural Institute — over six million cultural artifacts curated and given to us by institutions, to actually make these connections. You can travel through time, you can understand more about our society through these. You can look at it from the perspective of our planet, and try to see how it might look without borders, if we just organized art and culture. We can also then plot it by time, which obviously, for the data geek in me, is very fascinating. You can spend hours looking at every decade and the contributions in that decade and in those years for art, history and cultures. We would love to spend hours showing you each and every decade, but we don't have the time right now. So you can go on your phone and actually do it yourself.


But if you don't mind and can hold your applause till later, I don't want to run out of time, because I want to show you a lot of cool stuff.

So, just very quickly: you can move on from here to another very interesting idea. Beyond the pretty picture, beyond the nice visualization, what is the purpose, how is this useful? This next idea comes from discussions with curators that we've been having at museums, who, by the way, I've fallen in love with, because they dedicate their whole life to try to tell these stories. One of the curators told me, "Amit, what would it be like if you could create a virtual curator's table where all these six million objects are displayed in a way for us to look at the connections between them?" You can spend a lot of time, trust me, looking at different objects and understanding where they come from. It's a crazy Matrix experience.


Just moving on, let's take the world-famous Vincent Van Gogh, who is very well-represented on this platform. Thanks to the diversity of the institutions we have, we have over 211 high-definition, amazing artworks by this artist, now organized in one beautiful view. And as it resolves, and as Cyril goes deeper, you can see all the self-portraits, you can see still life. But I just wanted to highlight one very quick example, which is very timely: "The Bedroom." This is an artwork where three copies exist — one at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, one at the Orsay in Paris and one at the Art Institute of Chicago, which, actually, currently is hosting a reunion of all three artworks physically, I think only for the second time ever. But, it is united digitally and virtually for anybody to look at in a very different way, and you won't get pushed in the line in the crowd. So let's take you and let's travel through "The Bedroom" very quickly, so you can experience what we are doing for every single object. We want the image to speak as much as it can on a digital platform. And all you need is an internet connection and a computer


And, Cyril, if you can go deeper, quickly. I'm sorry, this is all live, so you have to give Cyril a little bit of — and this is available for every object: modern art, contemporary art, Renaissance — you name it, even sculpture.

Sometimes, you don't know what can attract you to an artwork or to a museum or to a cultural discovery. So for me, personally, it was quite a challenge because when I decided to make this my full-time job at Google, my mother was not very supportive. I love my mother, but she thought I was wasting my life with this museum stuff. And for her, a museum is what you do when you go on vacation and you tick-mark and it's over, right? And it took around four and a half years for me to convince my lovely Indian mother that actually, this is worthwhile. And the way I did it was, I realized one day that she loves gold. So I started showing her all objects that have the material gold in them. And the first thing my mom asks me is, "How can we buy these?"


And obviously, my salary is not that high, so I was like, "We can't actually do that, mom. But you can explore them virtually." And so now my mom — every time I meet her, she asks me, "Any more gold, any more silver in your project? Can you show me?" And that's the idea I'm trying to illustrate. It does not matter how you get in, as long as you get in. Once you get in, you're hooked.

Moving on from here very quickly, there is kind of a playful idea, actually, to illustrate the point of access, and I'm going to go quite quickly on this one. We all know that seeing the artwork in person is amazing. But we also know that most of us can't do it, and the ones that can afford to do it, it's complicated. So — Cyril, can we load up our art trip, what do we call it? We don't have a good name for this. But essentially, we have around 1,000 amazing institutions, 68 countries. But let's start with Rembrandt. We might have time for only one example. But thanks to the diversity, we've got around 500 amazing Rembrandt object artworks from 46 institutions and 17 countries. Let's say that on your next vacation, you want to go see every single one of them. That is your itinerary, you will probably travel 53,000 kilometers, visit around, I think, 46 institutions, and just FYI, you might release 10 tons of CO2 emissions.


But remember, it's art, so you can justify it, perhaps, in some way.

Moving on swiftly from here, is something a little bit more technical and more interesting. All that we've shown you so far uses metadata to make the connections. But obviously we have something cool nowadays that everyone likes to talk about, which is machine learning. So what we thought is, let's strip out all the metadata, let's look at what machine learning can do based purely on visual recognition of this entire collection. What we ended up with is this very interesting map, these clusters that have no reference point information, but has just used visuals to cluster things together. Each cluster is an art to us by itself of discovery. But one of the clusters we want to show you very quickly is this amazing cluster of portraits that we found from museums around the world. If you could zoom in a little bit more, Cyril. Just to show you, you can just travel through portraits. And essentially, you can do nature, you can do horses and clusters galore.

When we saw all these portraits, we were like, "Hey, can we do something fun for kids, or can we do something playful to get people interested in portraits?" Because I haven't really seen young kids really excited to go to a portrait gallery. I wanted to try to figure something out. So we created something called the portrait matcher. It's quite self-explanatory, so I'm just going to let Cyril show his beautiful face. And essentially what's happening is, with the movement of his head, we are matching different portraits around the world from museums.


And I don't know about you, but I've shown it to my nephew and sister, and the reaction is just phenomenal. All they ask me is, "When can we go see this?" And by the way, if we're nice, maybe, Cyril, you can smile and find a happy one? Oh, perfect. By the way, this is not rehearsed. Congrats, Cyril. Great stuff. Oh wow. OK, let's move on; otherwise, this will just take the whole time.


So, art and culture can be fun also, right? For our last quick experiment — we call all of these "experiments" — our last quick experiment comes back to machine learning. We show you clusters, visual clusters, but what if we could ask the machine to also name these clusters? What if it could automatically tag them, using no actual metadata? So what we have is this kind of explorer, where we have managed to match, I think, around 4,000 labels. And we haven't really done anything special here, just fed the collection. And we found interesting categories. We can start with horses, a very straightforward category. You would expect to see that the machine has put images of horses, right? And it has, but you also notice, right over there, that it has a very abstract image that it has still managed to recognize and cluster as horses. We also have an amazing head in terms of a horse. And each one has the tags as to why it got categorized in this.

So let's move to another one which I found very funny and interesting, because I don't understand how this category came up. It's called "Lady in Waiting." If, Cyril, you do it very quickly, you will see that we have these amazing images of ladies, I guess, in waiting or posing. I don't really understand it. But I've been trying to ask my museum contacts, you know, "What is this? What's going on here?" And it's fascinating.

Coming back to gold very quickly, I wanted to search for gold and see how the machine tagged all the gold. But, actually, it doesn't tag it as gold. We are living in popular times. It tags it as "bling-bling."


I'm being hard on Cyril, because I'm moving too fast. Essentially, here you have all the bling-bling of the world's museums organized for you.

And finally, to end this talk and these experiments, what I hope you feel after this talk is happiness and emotion. And what would we see when we see happiness? If we actually look at all the objects that have been tagged under "happiness," you would expect happiness, I guess. But there was one that came up that was very fascinating and interesting, which was this artwork by Douglas Coupland, our friend and artist in residence as well, called, "I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain." I don't know why the machine feels like it misses its pre-Internet brain and it's been tagged here, but it's a very interesting thought. I sometimes do miss my pre-Internet brain, but not when it comes to exploring arts and culture online.

So take out your phones, take out your computers, go visit museums. And just a quick call-out to all the amazing archivists, historians, curators, who are sitting in museums, preserving all this culture. And the least we can do is get our daily dose of art and culture for ourselves and our kids.

Thank you.