The presentation of the plaster objects and the demonstration of the artificial intelligence combined to form my end of year exhibition art work. Began with the idea of presenting a live experiment of the solving of the video game Pong projected inside the plaster objects Qualia but devolved into an edited movie Solve in which I recorded ten minutes per hour of the experiment leading to an edited video of an hour in duration. This was a solution to overcome the technical difficulties for the duration of the degree show of restarting and running the experiment in a live environment.
I have opted for simple solutions to both aspects, the objects and video in terms of physical presentation, this is a conscious decision derived from an ideal lack of artifice that I believe would serve only to distract and negate the simplicity of the work and its core concepts, namely the intellectual space of contemplation that I wished to engender in my viewers.
This resulted in a very simple, yet large plinth painted only in an undercoat of grey, which I hoped would contrast well with the white plaster and a simple linear arrangement of the objects. Thus allow viewers to examine the object easily from all angles, both the internal smooth surface and the external surface texture. Reiterating the lack of artifice and intentionally emphasising the fragility and thinness of the objects. Where they, as a tutor remarked, become almost invisible against the white wall of the studio.
The presentation of the video was more problematic. Finally resting on the idea to hang a single projector above the work, facing downwards, so as to have the video shown inside one of the plaster objects and avoiding dazzling the viewer with the projector bulb. The room lighting is shared with other exhibits, where originally I wished for natural light I am not adverse to any of the options available. Under spotlight for example shadow play is predominant and the video is stronger. Which is fine and in natural light the whiteness of the plaster comes into its own and the video is softer. I have opted to go with whatever lighting is used by the other exhibits. It feels like the right decision.
Given different circumstances I may have opted to utilise a second space to project or as originally intended run a live projected experiment. Neither option being feasible in this iteration of the work.
The curation of the video was a simple editing process, when I had decided to take that option. The aim with the video is not to entice the viewer to watch the entire video as it is agonising to watch as a “film”. I also left to chance as to what stage of the solve the viewer would see when looking at the work, simply looping the video continuously throughout the exhibition. In a sense the video is proof of concept as a means to outline future ambition.
Qualia was less of a curatorial problem. The objects tended to have limited lifespans due to the fragility. The smaller objects were discounted as candidates for exhibit, a larger object developed a hole in the otherwise smooth surface, discounting it as a candidate. One large sphere that would have made it through the selection process fell to misadventure. Whilst I attempted to overproduce so as to give myself options. There were clear choices (favourites) of which of the objects would be finally chosen.
Producing the Video
The video itself is a recording of ten minutes per hour of an experiment of a machine learning algorithm solving the problem of a video game Pong. The duration of the video is roughly an hour as that is the time using my personal PC and two worker agents takes to go from not knowing anything, to being able to play with “above human” accuracy. This is a standard machine learning test and is almost considered the “hello world” program of artificial intelligence.
Utilising a convolutional neural network (deep learning) worker agents mathematically solve an environment that can be visualised and hence recorded. Behind the scenes, mathematical concepts such as gradient decent are being implemented. It is these concepts that interest me, as they are designed based on our own problem solving abilities and represent our current understanding of organic consciousness.
The idea of creating an image classification dataset and allowing new images be classified in the live environment was feasible technically, yet the time frame of such a project was beyond the scope for this particular exhibition.
The key to the video is in the scoring as the worker agents are collecting data about rewards. Initially the orange side wins constantly yet as the experiment progresses the green side begins to score points. Learning from that behaviour the agent attempts to score more points per episode. Eventually the green side will win an episode, resulting in a large reward, until eventually the green side wins every point and every episode with a particular efficiency. It is the goal of the programmer to increase the efficiency of the algorithm.
Producing the plaster objects
There is a small window of time when the plaster is liquid but setting. This is the optimum time to pour. Too early and the solution is too liquid, resulting in a thin plaster that is next to impossible to remove from the sphere without shattering. Too late and the plaster is not liquid enough to run over the surface of the sphere. After some experimentation I was able to control the process to a certain extent. I was able to deduce whilst the plaster was still wet, if the object was to be successful or not.
The process in itself was enjoyable, there was little struggle. The pouring took only a moment and the drying was mainly done over weekends. Deflating the sphere to remove it was more about patience than skill. Most elements of the process were devoid of my interaction. I think there is something interesting about that and contribute rather than detract from the work.
The length of time experimenting with the consistency of the plaster, feeds into the curatorial decision making. Something I am grateful for. Rather than having to select objects. The fragility and large quantity of breakages, through misadventure and experimental incompleteness, answered some of those questions.
“You are the music whilst the music lasts.” – T.S. Eliot
The subject matter I have chosen for the degree show and as focus of my art practice are subjects that seemingly everyone has an opinion about. They are popular subjects, they are often predominant themes in books, films, news and art. This is not why I chose to be interested in them. But the fact allows me to spread my wings in terms of scope of research. I am able to look to the future or past in a multitude of genres and find stimulus to ignite my ideas. I can escape the everyday in a movie or pick up a math textbook and find relevance.
The subjects of both artificial intelligence and consciousness exist where ever people have and continue to exist. They are profound and relevant subjects that nourish my mind, pique my curiosity, challenge me intellectually and further my understanding of myself and of the human condition.
Below is a sample of the influences that helped me approach my end of year presentation as part of my Bachelor’s degree in fine art at Suffolk University.
In Decision Space Schmieg looked at the problem of the “hidden manual labour” behind image classification for datasets such as Image Net. Datasets that go on to be used in image classification algorithms that inform neural networks. Decision Space also brings to light the inherent bias that is embedded into the algorithms at the point of human classification. Schmieg asked visitors to the gallery website to classify images into categories, with the result being an image classifier dataset that could be used by neural networks for machine learning problems.
This dataset was then used by Schmieg in a further piece Is this the Problem, the solution, the Past and the Future that allowed a neural network intelligence, monitor the state of a gallery by classifying images and people in the gallery space as they appeared. Using the same image classifying categories that were used in Decision Space (Images were classified as: Problem, Solution, Past and Future).
I was drawn to Archangel, an American post-conceptual artist who has created works using video game technology, by the simplicity of the computer generated visual loops such as Super Mario Clouds, 2002. Extracting the simple yet elegant backdrops, alters their meaning and offers a chance to consider these now seemingly primitive (by modern day graphic standards) visuals in another light.
Watching the 8-bit clouds scroll by on the blue sky simulation assists in interpreting a complex relationship to contemporary existence. It opens up a dialogue with me in regard to that pursuit of watching the clouds roll by on a summer day. To contemplation. To question the real and the imaginary. It leads me to question the use of my own time and agency. Which I appreciate to be a useful function.
In my own work I attempt to create a catalyst (or an excuse) for the viewer, to reach that higher function of intellectual space. A space that contemporary society has belittled. I take for granted that viewers are able to achieve a state of reflection and contemplation and I serve only to facilitate that transition from the quotidian to the contemplative.
Maurice Conti an engineer working in a practical field of experimentation within robotics and machine learning. As well as speaking publicly (TED) about the research conducted and visions for an integrated data point system.
“You know you exist because the narrative exhibits you as a protagonist in the act of knowing.” – Antonio Damasio
Although their approach to the subject of consciousness differs, as do the messages. The importance of the subject is emphasised and all share in agreement that consciousness is in itself the pillar that we as individuals derive meaning and value from our world.
John Searle a staunch believer in the biological roots to the questions that arise when appreciating consciousness. “The study of this most mysterious phenomena should be subjected to a scientific analysis as much as any other phenomena, biological or otherwise.” (Searle)
Daniel Dennett wants to empirically prove that consciousness is an illusion, a neurological infinite of separateness that coalesces into a single sentience. “Real magic in other words refers to the magic that is not real (supernatural powers, miracles). While magic that is real (conjuring tricks, illusions), is not real magic”. (Dennett)
Antonio Damasio a clinical neurobiologist and empiricist wants to examine consciousness from an emotional perspective. “What can be more dizzying than to realise that it is our having consciousness which makes it possible and even inevitable our questions about consciousness.” (Damasio)
Practical research in the field of artificial intelligence
Due to my interest and desire to include artificial intelligence into my art practice. I have begun to experiment with and research both the science and mathematics that are utilised by professionals working in this field. I have taken basic courses in computer programming as a means to understanding and amending code. As well as familiarising myself with projects and tools such as Tensor Flow, used by professional data scientists with the aim of creating machine learning applications.
Although I am interested in these subjects independently of my art practice. I realise however they are not to everyone’s tastes and can be rather dry to read about. Which leads me to omit the technical research. Although I have begun to compile a compendium of information for those who would wish to explore this subject.
Carter, R. (2002) Consciousness. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Damasio, A.R. (2000) The feeling of what happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London: Vintage.
Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness explained. London: Penguin.
Searle, J.R. (1996) The construction of social reality. London: Penguin Books.
“Error would be removed from human life, because each person would do only what they knew and would leave what they did not know to that which did” (Donald Watt)
The piece of work I am currently engaged with, whose product is for my degree show exhibit. Is currently centered around three topics. The plaster work, artificial intelligence and Plato’s Charmides.
Throughout the degree I have experimented with fine white plaster. I discovered by pouring plaster I am able to coat surfaces, allowing physics take over the process. The result can be a smooth, white and fragile surface of eggshell thinness.
The work in progress for the degree show has plaster poured over transparent spheres. Resulting in incomplete surfaces of plaster over the body of the sphere, covering some areas completely, leaving other areas transparent.
Pouring plaster, whilst a conscious action also takes on its own life and trajectory in the small window of time before the plaster sets. I am drawn to it as being analogous to the operation of the manifestation of the internal. It is a natural process that is unimpeded once it crosses that boundary.
There is a simplicity to that surface. It seems to me alike to a single concept and because of that simplicity there is also a clarity. It is a surface that is receptive, to ideas, to projections. There is a quality conducive to contemplation.
I wanted to articulate these ideas as if I was discussing the mind itself or contemplation itself. A state of mind that is ready to receive, but a fragile state, one that I am easily distracted from.
It is that idea of reflecting the mind back on to the contemplation of itself that I found in Charmides, the Socratic dialogue by Plato. The concept of a knowledge of knowledge.
Artificial intelligence (Ai)
‘But as things are,’ I went on, ‘you can see that there is obviously no knowledge like that anywhere.’ (Plato, Charmides, 172a).
My work with Ai started in January 2017 when I was contemplating my focus of art practice. Some of the considerations that arose during this period were;
- Maintaining my focus and interest over the long term
- Satisfy my desire for intellectual challenge
- Give myself the ability to comment and contribute to the contemporary discourse
- Creatively explore the subject
I began with some basic exploration of the subject and I realized that the ability to experiment was within reach. Artificial intelligence in its raw state is mathematics and programming, an applied logic to solve problems.
I spent most of January learning the prerequisites that would enable me to start experimenting with existing code. This took the form of running Python environments under the Linux operating system and trying to deploy existing code and troubleshoot the errors I received during those processes. Each time a problem was solved I had learnt something that allowed me to continue my endeavor.
Alongside this practical development I was also researching the state of the debate from both a practical and a non-practical point of view. The general mathematics and frameworks for problem solving such as convolutional neural networks as well as the views of the media, professionals working in the field as well as general opinion. I watched TED talks and read papers as well as non-scientific journals and articles. I listened to future theorists and chatted with peers. It is an interesting subject and the discourse is wide ranging and lively.
By February I had set up my environment to the extent that I was able to run some basic experiments. The starting point for which focus on Ai learning. One of the key problems that is under scrutiny for those interested in Ai.
Learning is where the idea of neural networks becomes entwined with the subject of Ai. The principles of the mathematics behind solving problems is seen as being in parallel with how the organic human brain operates. Which opens up a philosophical discourse within the subject. To understand how to create Ai we must understand how the human brain functions. This seems to be one of the benefits of Ai that ultimately it may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.
Socrates: “Supposing self-control were as we now define it, and did govern us completely – wouldn’t everything be done as the various knowledge’s directed? (Plato, Charmides, 173a).
In March I began to discuss my progress and to manifest the progress I had made into the work that was part of the degree show project. The idea of live projection of the Ai code or visualizations of that code onto the surface of the plaster arose quite naturally.
My thinking around the subject was being led by the Socratic dialogue of Charmides. As it seems to fit with both the plaster work and the Ai subject.
Charmides by Plato is a dialogue that attempts to define the Greek virtue sophrosune. During the course of the dialogue the definition ranges from an unteachable quality a type of temperance or self-control to a knowledge of oneself.
During the course of the discussion the idea arises that sophrosune is also a type of knowledge. A knowledge that is a knowledge of itself but no other knowledge. The discussion continues to explore this idea and Plato, although unable to find any examples of this type of knowledge discusses what benefits such a knowledge may have. “Under those circumstances, wouldn’t the result be that we should be healthier of body than now?” (Plato, Charmides, 173b)
I found certain parallels to this discussion and the topic of artificial intelligence and to the contemplation of contemplation itself that arose when working with plaster.
- The requirement for temperance in the face of new technologies appears prudent
- Knowledge of knowledge would seem to be a good descriptor for the pursuit of both neuroscience and artificial intelligence
- The benefits described by Plato of such a knowledge are quite telling. Ranging from a perfectly run state, to the increase of happiness, the reduction of ignorance and error and a healthier populace
I am looking forward to a month of experiments with both plaster works and Ai as I prepare for the degree show. I see the work with Ai as a long term project that continues beyond the degree and any progress made now will be beneficial in the future.
 Alternatively spelt as sophrosyne. Whereas today there are three cardinal virtues. Wisdom, Justice and Courage. The Greeks also included Self-Control.