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Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
I’m on a short family break this week. I have asked my dear friend, the polymath, Marko Ahtisaari, to step in and handle Exponential View this week. Marko and I first met during the heady days of the dotcom bubble, and have been in close touch ever since. Most recently, teaching my kids how to use the Roli and Ableton.
He is a philosopher, a musician, a renowned design leader (he was SVP of design at Nokia for several years), and is now the Artistic Director of the Helsinki Festival, the largest annual arts festival in the Nordics.
I’m grateful that he stepped in to help. To show Marko your appreciation, hit ❤️ at the top of this email!
Have a wonderful week,
About Marko Ahtisaari
I’m Marko, Artistic Director of the Helsinki Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in the Nordics held annually in late August. While I’ve worked as a product designer and entrepreneur most of my life, I now focus my energy on the intersection of the arts and technology. You can follow me @moia.
I also play in the band Construction with Nadya Peek. You may remember us from the EV playlist on Spotify that we’ve just updated for you. And here is an exclusive Exponential preView of our latest ‘Jetway’ remix, a music video shot on the Shinkansen arriving in Tokyo. You can follow us @nstructionco.
As an early EV reader I’m honoured to guest edit this week’s issue as we shine a light on art and artificial intelligence.
Dept of the near future
🌀 Paradigms are always driven by unsustainable forces. The key is to recognise how the paradigm you’re in is unsustainable and figure out the best place to position yourself when the tide goes out—so you can be ready to catch the next wave.
⚖️ Concern about national security was a prominent theme of the US Senate Banking Committee’s hearings on Libra this week, but Diego Zuluaga of the Cato Institute is sceptical. He argues that, far from the catnip to money launderers which some people seem to fear, Libra will be no worse than other cryptocurrencies or even the traditional financial system when it comes to combating flows of illicit or illegal money. As a reminder, here’s a breakdown of what we know so far about how Libra will work from EV reader Sasu Ristimaki.
🥕 Genetically modified food will be a necessity to feed the world’s population by 2050, according to the new research from the World Resources Institute. We need crops which are both more productive and more resilient if we're going to feed 10 billion people in a rapidly changing climate—and that means we need to start investing more today in research on genetic modification.
⚡ Climate breakdown: 412.46 ppm | 3,958 days
Each week, we’re going to remind you of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the number of days until reaching the 450ppm threshold.
The latest measurement (as of July 15): 412.46 ppm; 12 months ago: 409ppm; 50 years ago: 326.66ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
This molecule might help us save the planet. ZIF-8 is being described as a ‘wonder material’ for carbon capture and storage. The metal-organic lattice framework traps CO2 molecules, and may also hold potential for drug therapies, desalination filters, nuclear waste containers, and photovoltaics.
A new computer simulation study is yielding promising results for another method for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it to use. Airborne CO2 would be pumped down deep under the seafloor into deposits of icy water and methane. Incoming CO2 would drive out the methane, which could be piped to the surface and used to generate electricity.
Artificial intelligence and art
I fondly remember a conversation I was having with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former President of Estonia and another Exponential View reader (his guest-edited edition of EV is here), at an Arvo Pärt Foundation event a few years ago in New York. The topic then, as today, was artificial intelligence and art. It was shortly after the fateful AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol match; we discussed the prospects of artificial intelligence to generate breakthroughs in art, much like Pärt’s self-invented minimalist compositional ‘tintinnabuli’ technique. Surely AIs could emulate Pärt’s style once he had invented it, but could a machine ever make the leap to a new style?
Art and AI is a much-hyped, poorly understood and little experienced area. The breakthroughs will come, I believe, from the centaurs, the artist(s) working together with non-human intelligences, not machines emulating styles or replacing human artists.
In this emerging field, I look to the work of artists who are formulating new questions about artificial intelligence and our relationship with these non-human species. As curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery aptly puts it, ‘one of the current aims of AI research is to find new means of interaction between humans and software. And art, one could say, needs to play a key role in that enterprise, since it focuses on our subjectivity and on essential human aspects like empathy and mortality.
Sabir. Artist and author James Bridle’s ‘Se ti sabir’ is a 19-minute film reflecting on language, intelligence, and our relationship with new technologies and non-human species. James has kindly made his film available exclusively for Exponential View subscribers. He expands on the film: ‘Sabir’ is a word from Lingua franca, a language spoken in and around the Mediterranean for over eight hundred years, made up of words and grammar from Berber, Turkish, French, Greek, Arabic, and other languages. It means ‘to know’, and was also used as a greeting when two people speaking different languages met: ‘Sabir? Do you know? Can we speak?’ Just as we are learning more about the many different forms of intelligence that populate the world, we are also allowing computational systems to take over ever more of our cognitive and creative processes. ‘Se ti sabir’ tries to imagine new ways in which we might understand one another, the beings that surround us, and the ones we are creating. Follow @jamesbridle.
Speaking in Tongues. nimiia cétiï is an audio-visual artwork by Jenna Sutela in collaboration with Memo Akten and Damien Henry as part of Google Arts & Culture artist-in-residence program. The work, according to the artist, ‘is inspired by experiments in interspecies communication and aspiring to connect with a world beyond our consciousness. Here, the computer is a shaman of modern days, a medium, articulating messages from entities that cannot otherwise speak.’ Interpreting Martian originally channelled by French medium Hélène Smith in the nineteenth century, the machine simultaneously engages with the movements of an extremophilic bacterium called Bacillus subtilis which, according to recent spaceflight experimentation, could survive on Mars. Also, watch the making-of video. Follow @jennasutela.
Art with a Nervous System. Since 2012, artist Ian Cheng has created a series of simulations that explore an agent’s capacity to deal with an ever-changing environment. These works culminated in the Emissaries trilogy, which introduced a narrative agent—the emissary—whose motivation to enact a story was set into conflict with the open-ended chaos of the simulation. Cheng’s Emissaries trilogy (2015-17) was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Described by Cheng as a ‘habitat for stories’ or ‘video game that plays itself’, each Emissaries episode is a computer-generated simulation featuring a cast of flora and fauna that interact, intervene and recombine in open-ended narratives. Most recently, he has been developing BOB (Bag of Beliefs), an AI creature whose personality, body, and life script evolve across exhibitions. Follow @eyecheng.
AI Art at Auction. The first auction of AI artwork sold for 45 times its high estimate, which is crazy. Really interesting bit: ‘This raises the intriguing notion that AI algorithms do not merely make pictures, they also tend to model the course of art history — as if art’s long progression from figuration to abstraction were part of a program that has been running in the collective unconscious for half a millennium, and the whole story of our visual culture were a mathematical inevitability.’ Also, Christie’s held an entire Art + Tech Summit in June this year, including a presentation from Hyundai, of all things.
Art Market, Free Market. Interview with artist Memo Akten on some of the technical elements of AI art. ‘First, I’d like to set the context for this discussion by bringing to attention the fact that the art market is a place where, with the right branding, you can sell a pickled shark for $8 million. The art market is ultimately the purest expression of the free, open market. The price of an object is determined by how much somebody is willing to pay for it, which is not necessarily related to its cultural value.’
I’m curious to hear what you think: please leave all comments and questions below.
If you are interested in more artists, works or research, here is a list of interesting artists and researchers working with AI. Please feel free to add to the list and to share it with others who might be interested.
A lovely interactive guide on how generative music works.
There are a lot of apps which can make your selfie look like a Renaissance portrait, but most of them rely on a technique known as style transfer, which involves imposing surface-level stylistic elements of paintings over a modern image. AI Portrait Ars is different. Rather than layering onto an existing image, it uses a generative adversarial network to conjure up an entirely new image inspired by your photo, which is probably as close as you’ll get to a real portrait without breaking out the oil paint.
This year’s Helsinki Festival begins on August 15. With a machine-generated robot choir as the opening act for an over 2000-strong human choir. You can teach the robot choir to sing, too. This year the machines open for the humans. Next year?
Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🚴 Why did we wait so long for the bicycle? Fascinating history.
Many US-educated students from China are headed back East, claiming they can move faster and break more things in Shenzhen than in Silicon Valley.
Neural analysis finds the brains of both sexes respond the same way to pornography. This sparks another question: ‘If Playboy paid attention to erotica, like they do to other things… what would that media look like?’ h/t @stoya
🚀 Mining Bitcoin on an Apollo Guidance Computer from the 60s seems like a difficult and pointless challenge—so naturally, it had to be done.
🧠 Intel has built an 8 million neuron neuromorphic system, but they’re aiming for 100 million by 2020.
Many of the leaders of the Googler Uprising have left Google, with some citing retaliation from management.
🔋 Every new home in England will be required to have electric car charge points under new legislation set to be introduced in the UK.
The first-ever computer-aided breast cancer diagnosis system has been approved by the FDA.
🦖 Some dinosaurs nested in groups and worked together to protect their eggs.
What a thoroughly refreshing issue. I agree with Marko’s claim that we should understand the role of AI in art not so much as creating art, but as creating a new set of tools for the human artist. We can call this AI-enabled artist a centaur, if we like, much as we invoked the idea of centaur chess some years ago.
When we see AI systems mimicking artistic styles, using techniques like style transfer, it is natural to question whether this will replace the artist. This isn’t the correct framing. Yes, it does make Pointillist-like clones more common amongst digital media, much like Photoshop filters aped the physical techniques long-used by painters and photographers.
But, as I discussed with Joanna Bryson, in this podcast, these tools are just tools, even if they are powerful ones.
Tools do enable new expressions of creativity. Think of Brunellechi’s breakthrough rediscovery or perspective more than 500 years ago. Or how we struggled to put blue in art for generations. (As a pigment, blue is relatively infrequent in nature. The Egyptians had a breakthrough with it about 4,000 years ago, but as recently as the 16th century Michelangelo and Raphael struggled with its scarcity.) And these tools form a dialogue with our imaginations helping us to flight into new dimensions.
If you can get to Helsinki in August for the Festival, I’m sure you’ll have a brilliant time. And even if you don’t, please take a moment to thank Marko for such an enlightening perspective:
hit ❤️ at the top of this email, or
leave a thank you note in comments below
P.S. Scroll down to catch the latest updates from your fellow readers!
What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Congrats to Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi on the $15.3m A round led by Andreessen Horowitz. We use Substack for EV distribution and we’re happy to be on this exciting journey together!
Kostas Stathoulopoulos shares a report on gender diversity in AI he and his colleagues at Nesta published.
Ussal Sahbaz on AI and the risk of new colonialism.
Thomas A. Campbell, President at FutureGrasp, shares a report his organisation published in collaboration with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute: Artificial Intelligence: An Overview of State Initiatives.
Tom Greenwood’s organisation has declared climate emergency; he invites you to join.
Paul Millard is running an online strategy consulting workshop starting August 5. EV readers get $100 off if you sign up here.
To share your project or update, email firstname.lastname@example.org. No PR pitches, please!