An Ephemeral Evolution

StillLifeWithComputer-1984.jpg

One afternoon late in 2015, as I was listening to a discussion of creativity by a group of experts in computer science and related fields on NPRs’ Science Friday program, the pencil and watercolor drawing shown above, Still Life With Computer, came to mind. Since I’d made the drawing back in 1984, I’d been periodically thinking about the current and future capabilities of artificial intelligence in the wake of organic human creativity, which they were examining in depth.

Just the tenor of all the tech-speak reminded me that creativity is much more than a theoretical, mathematical, virtual process. It is a construct of our physical senses, experiences, emotions, memories, decisions and choices. Working in synch, these elements spark one or more images in our minds that we can decide to manifest through a visual medium such as drawing and/or writing.

Metaphorically, the creative process is akin to threading our way through a mental labyrinth. There, we might ultimately find the object of our journey, even if we had no clear picture of it going in. It is not always evident whether that object will turn out to be a monster, a brilliant idea or whether we will be able to retrace our steps so as to consider the bigger picture of our efforts. Of course, we can accomplish this latter goal by choosing to retain our notes and/or sketches for use in future or to create an entirely new project. For these reasons, I’ve always believed that each of us has this creative potential, yet if and how we decide to express it is what makes each of us uniquely human.

Although this mode of thinking and its products have nourished and documented our cultural progress and history, it was only a matter of time until we had no choice but to acknowledge the perceptual changes that the growing presence and influence of virtual art-making are exercising on our society.

So I wondered: If we were to code a computer with artificial intelligence that allows it to interpret an image and/or text such as the Mona Lisa or a manuscript page of Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412-1416 and 1485-1489 CE), could it create an entirely new image or text based on the information we’ve provided? More importantly, could that image be taken for one that the original artist would make were he or she living today? Finally, would this technology be able to determine when its ‘mission’ is ‘complete’?

A few years ago, these ideas were in the realm of science fiction for me; they were intriguing but did not seem to be a real threat to the high value society accords to creators of original, manual artworks. Even when early virtual/mechanical developments showed promise, I still suspected that a computer’s artificial ability to create art intended to engender profound human emotion might only produce a visual experience as flat as the reproduction of a masterpiece in a book or magazine.

I actually thought that we would need years, even decades to clarify and quantify our own understanding of human objectivity, free will and the ‘soul’ for artificial intelligence to decode it. I also imagined this knowledge would have to manifest as a mechanical surrogate like the science-fictional positronic brain of Star Trek’s android character Mr. Data in order to accomplish this goal. 

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Ah, is ignorance bliss, or what? But fantasies do have their limit.

Ever since AI computers have been shown to perform well in strategic tasks like human-computer chess matches (where a series of traditional outcomes (moves leading to checkmate) has been predetermined, their high-speed, analytical abilities and performance have been increasing exponentially. 

Indeed, progress in this area has taken on a life of its own with finance professionals tweaking its light-speed fortune-making possibilities, medical researchers implementing and anticipating more sophisticated disease treatments, our world’s dependence on it to support our service and power infrastructure and of course, science fiction writers and filmmakers envisioning societies informed by this work.

Simultaneously, as scholars and scientists are employing artificial intelligence to explain creative people and the act of creativity itself, they are racing to democratize creativity and its decision-making component by reducing this process to dizzyingly complex algorithms.

Yet, wonderful as these developments are, instinct tells me that a complete accounting for a creative person’s true talent is missing a few numbers. Artistic talent is an ephemeral fusion of observations, memory and manual skills that include decision-making based on what he or she has seen, heard and experienced. So in my opinion, the inherent subtleties in human creativity have not yet been fully re-imagined.

That said, from my personal experience with digitally enhancing my traditional art, the perceived line between traditional art and art produced by artificial intelligence is becoming frighteningly thin.

Not only can we now make art with virtual tools on a virtual substrate, AI computers partnered with 3D printing technology can also digitally scan an Old Master painting and extrapolate techniques in order to create and produce a new physical image from it, as explained by this article from the online magazine, Marketing In Asia.

In addition, I was recently amazed and bit uneasy at Pittsburgh’s Wood Street Gallerys exhibit in which the entire Hebrew Torah and The St. James Bible were created on paper by a robotic arm. Not being a biblical scholar, I couldn’t attest to its accuracy, but somehow, the whole idea left me cold as I imagined medieval monks in a scriptorium laboring for years to produce their calligraphic and pictorial masterpieces.

So, this essay is meant to ask a few questions whose answers may already be obvious to some of you:

1. If current profit motives and economic prerogatives prevail, could or will AI developments in the arts eventually render human creatives obsolete?

2. Can we ever faithfully capture and mechanize the true essence of the human spirit, the driving force that makes us the wonderfully functioning creatures, receptive and responsive to physical and intellectual experience that we’ve become through biological evolution and the continuum of history?

3. Will we gradually lose our ability to identify and respond to the nuances of original, manual art as we normalize art produced by virtual means?

4. What consequences of such normalization can we expect in terms of intellectual property protection? Fasken, an international law firm has offered its own questions and answers to this concern.

5. Finally, will this new ‘normal’ become the tool of our own cultural immortality or the weapon of its destruction?

What say you?

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