How Stephen Hawking inspired the UK Pavilion’s poetic presentation at Expo 2020

Designed by Es Devlin, the pavilion will project AI-generated poems throughout the event

As Expo 2020 Dubai begins, the UK Pavilion will beam a message to the world, starting with one word – dignity.

Envisioned by artist and designer Es Devlin, the 21-metre-high structure acts as a poem pavilion. Its cone shape is made of several slats where, on each end, algorithmically generated words will appear throughout the event, creating a “collective message” for all.

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The first word, dignity, was entered into the AI algorithm by Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation and director general of Expo 2020 Dubai. The technology will then use the word as a starting point to generate couplets that will be projected on to the pavilion for visitors to read.

Al Hashimy said she hoped the “AI-powered creative journey” would serve as a “unifying force” during Expo 2020 and after the event.

With its fusion of poetry and technology, the presentation follows the UK Pavilion’s theme, "Innovating for a Shared Future." It is also an experimental look at the possibilities of AI, of whether or not it can compose and wield verse to express human emotion.

The concept of a universal message was inspired by Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose final projects included the pursuit of a “breakthrough message” from the world that could be sent to space in an effort to find or communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence. Hawking launched the Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by Russian tycoon Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, in 2015.

That year, a joint letter from the Breakthrough programme stated: “There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilisation, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources and passion to this quest.”

In a interview with Dezeen in 2018, when the concept of the UK Pavilion was first launched, Devlin said: “Poetry brings order to language, and machine-learning is a way to weave our voices together without prejudice while following the rhythms of centuries of poetic thought in a range of diverse cultures.”

She also talked about how the project could help to address divisive rhetoric in parts of the world. “The public debate around national identity is currently tending perilously towards the divisive and prosaic. I hope that the many millions who attend Expo 2020 and visit the UK Pavilion will feel a sense of the possibilities of the collective poetic,” she said.

Throughout the event, which runs until March, the UK Pavilion will also stage talks with various thinkers, offer British food and drink, and stage artist performances and interactive experiences for families.

More information is at expo2020dubai.com

See more of Es Devlin's previous projects in the gallery below:

Updated: October 3rd 2021, 10:38 AM