Posts Tagged ‘soul’

An Ephemeral Evolution

July 23, 2018

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. 

DataTNG.jpg

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?

Advertisements

Eden’s Edible Blessings

July 1, 2014

BlessingForFruit+VegetablesRGB6-50%.jpgAlthough we are told in Genesis/Bereshit (1:29) that “God said {to Adam}, “Behold, I have given you every seedbearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit. It shall be to you for food,” no specific varieties of fruits or vegetables are named. Not even those on the Trees of Life and Knowledge whose fruit was off-limits for human consumption. Legend suggests that the Tree of Life bore every type of fruit necessary to maintain health and immortality but did not indicate whether these properties were the benefits of one type of fruit or many. Similarly, the mysterious fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was said to provide the sort of self-awareness that led to human mortality.

Legend* relates that Adam was named ‘Adamah’ (Hebrew for Earth) because he was made of the dust gathered from the four corners of the world. His naming seems ironic because if this proto-human was constructed to be welcomed at any place on Earth where his death would occur, did G-d know His creation better that we suspect and that expulsion from Eden was inevitable? These concepts are painted with an unimaginably broad brush opening the way to endless interpretation and speculation.

Nevertheless, Adam was considered the ‘crown’ of Creation and was appointed caretaker of the world, with a caveat; that he must be utterly dependent on it for his basic needs. So, as fruit trees and edible plants serve those needs, they become a metaphor of our relationship with our environment.

It is probably safe to venture that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are not wildly different from the those in the Garden of Eden with the the exception of our cleverly cultivated hybrids; the results of our scientific manipulation of those original species. We may have paid a terrible price for our knowledge, yet we have prevailed and, over the centuries, created taxonomies for naming them while making astonishing discoveries of both their nutritive and medicinal value for our bodies.

So what does this have to do blessings? Nothing if you are a strict evidence-based rationalist, believing that all life on earth evolved of its own unscripted volition and that we are so intelligent that we’ve figured out how to use it to our advantage. But if, by acknowledging the divine source of our intelligence behind the beautifully intricate design and purpose of each fruit of the tree or ground that we consume, then reciting a blessing for these creations is surely in order.** Particularly if we consider that such foods exercise our senses of sight, smell and taste, helping to provide our souls with healthy habitats.

As a child, I existed pretty much as a creature of instinct and need, unaware of the many ways by which we can acknowledge and understand our lives. Most of us, I suspect, still do so. Especially in a country such as ours, where religion has become a power tool, abundance is easily taken for granted, time represents money and we are deluded enough to imagine we will live forever.

But as I slowly realized all the ways we can choose to enhance and maintain ourselves even as we understand our physical limits, I now prefer to stop and think before taking that first bite of apple or tomato and murmur a little thanks to our Source for our partnership that makes it all possible.

These concepts and sentiments formed my decision to include the blessing for fruits of the tree and ground as #34 of 36 in An Illumination Of Blessings.

For this illustration, the choice from among the myriad fruits and vegetables available to us was quite difficult, especially knowing that I needed to include representatives of both tree and ground. As an artist, I limited my choices to those whose shapes and colors were visually harmonious or, as Eve/Chava put it, ‘pleasing to the eye’. These were designed and placed to form an intricate border around the blessings. Tiny versions of several of them serve to enhance the initial letters of each blessing. Finally, I’ve placed everything against a black background of ‘earth’ from which all originates and is renewed.

************************************************************

To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

************************************************************

* The Creation Of Adam from Legends of the Bible: Louis Ginzburg, p. 28

**For a tree-borne fruit to receive the ‘Ha-Etz’ blessing, it must come from a perennial tree that doesn’t renew its stem or grow too close to the ground, such as apples, figs, dates and plums. Fruits of the ground that receive the ‘Ha-Adamah’ blessing include all vegetables, legumes, pleanuts and any fruit that is not covered by the Ha-Etz blessing such as melons, bananas, pineapples and strawberries.

Modeh Ani: An Appreciation Of Miracles

November 25, 2013

 

ImageThis week, the rare confluence of the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah holidays, each a unique tale of struggle, survival and miracles, has inspired me to present the Modeh Ani next for An Illumination Of Blessings. Here’s why: I’ve been thinking about the nature of miracles, how our perception of them has changed over time and the subtle reference to them in this blessing.

When we think of miracles, the big, cinema-worthy Biblical ones such as Noah’s postdiluvian rainbow, the parting of the Red (Reed) Sea in Exodus or the appearance of manna in the desert usually come to mind. Biblical history tells us that such phenomena  mysteriously appeared to precipitate a great crisis or in the wake of one and were meant to induce our fear, obedience, humility and faith in G-d. But in the absence of such grand miracles since post-Biblical times and the influence of our scientific understanding of nature’s laws, it’s easy to imagine those reactions fading into memory. And as we live our mundane day-to-day lives, it’s easy to blink past the one ubiquitous miracle we cannot afford to take for granted; waking up each morning.

We’ve often heard of friends, family or celebrities going to bed one night and waking up dead. News of such a passing is especially unsettling when, like me, you are a contemporary of some one lately deceased in this manner, leaving no opportunity for closure either with loved ones or with unfinished tasks.

Of course, we can’t know the extent of our own timelines, nor would most of us wish to. Nevertheless, beginning each morning with a certain mindfulness can enable us to meet each day’s challenges with the physical and emotional strength needed to recognize and accomplish our goals. Certainly, there’s nothing new about this idea; such philosophies generously pepper myriad self-help books and motivational speaker’s scripts. Yet, a simple blessing like the Modeh Ani has both the spiritual and scientific chops to make it worthwhile learning and remembering.

The Modeh Ani was first composed as a Kabbalistic (mystical) invocation among the Sephardic Jewish community in the Seder Avodas Hayom attributed to the 16th century Rav Moshe ben Makhir of Tzfat (Safed), a contemporary of Rav Yosef Karo, the compiler of the code of Jewish law, The Shulchan Aruch (The Set Table). Soon after, the blessing appeared in a 1687 Ashkenazic prayerbook (siddur) called the Derech Yeshara. Uniquely, it makes no mention of G-d’s Name allowing its recitation immediately on awakening before relieving ourselves and washing our hands. According to halakhah (Jewish law), it is not permitted to pray with G-d’s Name before washing, so the prayer was composed as a compromise alluding to G-d’s Name but not actually saying it. 

Recited each morning, the Modeh provides an opportunity to express our gratitude for the return of our soul to our bodies. Rationally, it can be said that we haven’t gone anywhere; that sleep is merely a restorative, physiological process, but that only begs the question: why were we given the ability to sleep in the first place?

The late Lubavitcher Rabbi succinctly commented on the process of soul (neshama) renewal as we sleep and its return to us when we wake (found @ chabad.org): “If we didn’t sleep, there would be no tomorrow. Life would be a single, seamless today. Our every thought and deed would be an outgrowth of all our previous thoughts and deeds. There would be no new beginnings in our lives, for the very concept of a new beginning would be alien to us. Sleep means that we have the capacity to not only improve but also transcend ourselves. To open a new chapter in life that is neither predicted nor enabled by what we did and{what we}were, up until now. {Sleep is necessary} to free ourselves of yesterday’s constraints and build a new, recreated self.”

I’ll close here with an apocryphal tale that you can take for what it’s worth. It addresses both the spiritual and physiological rationales of sleep. At an alleged 2008 international conference of neurologists, the main topic was the phenomenon of fainting when arising from sleep. A British professor presented a paper on her investigation of this issue, concluding that fainting is due to the rapid motion occurring between laying down and standing up. She pointed out that it takes twelve seconds for blood to reach the brain from our feet and when we stand up too quickly, that process is compromised causing one to faint. The professor suggested that one should sit up slowly, counting to twelve to avoid dizziness or fainting.

Her presentation was being received amidst much enthusiasm when another professor, an observant Jew, requested permission to speak. “Among Jews,” he began, “there is a traditional prayer called the Modeh Ani with which we express our thanks to the Creator of the World for permitting us to wake from sleep healthy and whole. It is recited while seated in bed immediately upon awakening. This prayer contains twelve words which takes exactly twelve seconds to say when done slowly and with sincerity.” The time, the audience’s enthusiastic response was quite likely directed at the Creator of the World…