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AI plus intangible cultural heritage

Author  :  SUN FACHENG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-12-16

(Top) A tablet which audience members can use to draw, which turns their work into Jinshan Peasant Paintings by AI. (Middle) Audience members learn how to select a role for themselves in a shadow puppet play by playing the drum. (Bottom) A Shanghai-style cheongsam that dynamically demonstrates patterns from all four seasons, using intelligent textiles and an intelligent algorithm. The exhibitions took place at China International Import Expo 2019 (CIIE), Shanghai. Photo: TONGJI UNIVERSITY

China has come a long way in intangible cultural heritage (ICH) preservation since Kun Qu opera was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001.

During the past two decades, the focus of China's endeavors in protecting ICH has shifted from general investigation and project declaration to protection and inheritance with inheritors at the core. We have explored preservation methods featuring rescue conservation, integrated preservation, productive protection, digital methods, exhibitions, and much more.

In a short span of 20 years, China has seen the tangible outcomes of its work. A "China model" is gradually taking shape, with rich experiences to offer to the world.


Essentially, most ICH projects in China are rooted in agricultural civilization. They are usually the result of joint efforts, which are passed down from previous generations via face-to-face teaching. These handicraft techniques are altered very slowly over time. Techniques are usually applied by the inheritors in their living spaces, thus creating a relatively exclusive and self-sufficient cultural space.

To help conserve these heritages, digital methods have been adopted. Computers and other forms of digital equipment are used to collect, store, manage, display, and disseminate relevant knowledge. This way, intangible cultural heritage is turned into digital content in databases, websites, digital museums, etc.

Of course, apart from collecting and preserving information about these projects, digital technologies also help to popularize and marketize ICH. For instance, it has become increasingly popular for inheritors of traditional handicrafts to perform their skills on short-video platforms like Tik Tok and Kwai as a way to promote their talent and brand, and attract orders.

Against the backdrop of deepening industrialization and modernization, technological methods are playing an increasingly bigger role in preserving ICH and aiding inheritors. However, since modern technologies and ICH come from two different backgrounds, many theoretical questions await answers: What are the subjects of these projects during digitization? Do inheritors approve of digitization? How can digitization help preserve these projects? How will digitization affect the forms of their existence? While these questions remain unanswered, AI has already been applied to the digital preservation of intangible cultural heritage.


Since Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project in 1959, the concept of AI has gained profound influence. AI is an advanced product of computer science. With a computer as a typical carrier, AI simulates the way a human brain functions, including its thinking process and behavioral intelligence.

The development of AI involves many disciplines in both the natural sciences and humanities and social sciences, including computer science, psychology, math, biology, medicine, philosophy, and linguistics. AI can be developed through traditional programming techniques, as well as simulation techniques such as genetic algorithms and artificial neural networks.

There are two kinds of AI: weak AI and strong AI, which depends on the AI's ability to reason, think, and solve problems. Weak AI can only be applied to dedicated systems with certain functions, such as voice recognition, machine translation, and picture processing. This type of AI is unable to adapt or solve complex issues like a human brain. Strong AI refers to an intelligent system that has reached human levels of intelligence, and is self-aware and able to think. Although the AI we are seeing today is still weak AI, it is becoming increasingly influential.

When applied to ICH protection, AI has been reshaping the way an ICH is disseminated and inherited. AI with its new and varied technological means has transformed and reconstructed ICH's forms of existence and methods of dissemination. Old artistry has seen great changes thanks to modern technology. AI has brought ICH closer to more people in a brand-new fashion, thus improving the popularity and influence of ICH projects. For instance, the Encyclopedia of Intangible Cultural Heritage, launched by Baidu in 2015, displays all forms of materials regarding outstanding ICH projects, including pictures, videos, audio, AR and VR. To celebrate the Cultural and Natural Heritage Day in 2018, Baidu brought onstage an AI + ICH show, and AR was used to reproduce the manufacturing process of New Year wood-block prints and kite making.

In terms of popularizing ICH knowledge, AI has also helped create more forms of distribution, and increased the public’s curiosity, making ICH more widely known at home and abroad.

It's worth pointing out that as AI was introduced to the process of preserving ICH, it also began to influence the inheritors of ICH knowledge, changing the content and manifestation forms of the inherited projects. Different from traditional technologies which were designed to replace man's physical power through mechanization and automation, AI attempts to replace certain part of man's intelligence. Take shujin (Sichuan brocade) for example, designing is the most important part throughout the entire manufacturing procedure. Traditionally, the design draft has to be hand-drawn by talented and experienced textile artists. With AI, embroiderers no longer need to draw patterns by hand. Instead, they could simply take a photo, and the AI drawing technique would turn it into designs which the embroiderer could work with. The influence of next-generation information and communication technology, such as big data, the internet of things, and cloud services, on ICH inheritance cannot be underestimated.

At the Shanghai International Tea Expo 2018, an AI teapot demonstrated the ability to perform traditional tea-making which formerly relied on a tea master's knowledge and know-how. The pot carries a chip that stores the knowledge of tea-making, tea sets, tea-making processes and heat control, as was recorded in tea master Lu Yu's The Classic of Tea. With a multisensor, the AI teapot collects data and identifies the time needed for brewing different tea leaves. To some extent, it shows that an AI robot is able to replace some human techniques. However, AI's ability to preserve ICH is still at an early stage.

AI's Limitations

According to UNESCO's Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, "'Safeguarding' means measures aimed at ensuring the viability of the intangible cultural heritage, including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage."

At the weak AI stage, intelligent agents and intelligence systems could play a comparatively bigger role in identifying, documenting, researching, preserving, protecting, promoting, and transmission of ICH. AI has a powerful memory, and is able to establish databases based on big data and the internet. Meanwhile, it can sort out the statistics regarding a project's subjects as well as its users. AI is able to promote information and products based on data analysis.

Technologies including man-machine interactions, intelligent identification, and 3D imaging are gradually improving. More intelligent services will come into being, including enhanced man-machine interactions, smart explainers, dialect translators, and reconstruction of ICH virtual scenes. These new functions will give the audience a stronger sense of participation and enhance their experience.

Nevertheless, this kind of AI application can only help protect ICH. The core issue of inheritance remains unsolved. Intelligent agents with a certain degree of learning ability can imitate the moves of some shadow puppets and kung fu, but they are unable to think, feel, or appreciate beauty, neither do they have consciousness. The key to maintaining the vitality of ICH lies in the inheritors' hands, and what need to be protected the most are their memories and know-how. So far, AI is merely able to imitate human intelligence. There is a long way to go until it can actually think and analyze independently like a human brain. The problem of ICH inheritance can not be solved until then.

As a matter of fact, the know-how, craftsmanship and knowledge of an ICH is so integrated with its inheritor's body and mind that the two cannot be divided. An inheritor's action system and thinking system work together to inherit and perform various ICH projects. The process involves embodied cognition and localization, which is why ICH has to be passed down from person to person, face-to-face.

The AI we have today is nothing more than an object or machine. Its technologies and techniques are separated from man's body and the social context. Although some AI robots are equipped with a certain level of learning ability, and are able to display some "creativity" and "imagination," such as poetry composing, painting, and composing music. Still, they are far from reaching the standard of human intelligence.

In other words, AI is able to solve some important issues regarding ICH protection and inheritance, but it remains unable to fully master or inherit the knowledge and know-how of human inheritors. From our current technological foundation, however AI tries to imitate human intelligence, it would not have a true sense of self-awareness or solve problems since it does not have human's body and mind.


Sun Facheng is from the College of Creative Culture and Communication at Zhejiang Normal University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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