A Philosopher Argues That an AI Can’t Be an Artist

1 March 2019

From MIT Technology Review:

On March 31, 1913, in the Great Hall of the Musikverein concert house in Vienna, a riot broke out in the middle of a performance of an orchestral song by Alban Berg. Chaos descended. Furniture was broken. Police arrested the concert’s organizer for punching Oscar Straus, a little-remembered composer of operettas. Later, at the trial, Straus quipped about the audience’s frustration. The punch, he insisted, was the most harmonious sound of the entire evening. History has rendered a different verdict: the concert’s conductor, Arnold Schoenberg, has gone down as perhaps the most creative and influential composer of the 20th century.

You may not enjoy Schoenberg’s dissonant music, which rejects conventional tonality to arrange the 12 notes of the scale according to rules that don’t let any predominate. But he changed what humans understand music to be. This is what makes him a genuinely creative and innovative artist. Schoenberg’s techniques are now integrated seamlessly into everything from film scores and Broadway musicals to the jazz solos of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman.

Creativity is among the most mysterious and impressive achievements of human existence. But what is it?

. . . .

Creativity is not just novelty. A toddler at the piano may hit a novel sequence of notes, but they’re not, in any meaningful sense, creative. Also, creativity is bounded by history: what counts as creative inspiration in one period or place might be disregarded as ridiculous, stupid, or crazy in another. A community has to accept ideas as good for them to count as creative.

. . . .

Advances in artificial intelligence have led many to speculate that human beings will soon be replaced by machines in every domain, including that of creativity. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, predicts that by 2029 we will have produced an AI that can pass for an average educated human being. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, is more circumspect. He does not give a date but suggests that philosophers and mathematicians defer work on fundamental questions to “superintelligent” successors, which he defines as having “intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.”

Both believe that once human-level intelligence is produced in machines, there will be a burst of progress—what Kurzweil calls the “singularity” and Bostrom an “intelligence explosion”—in which machines will very quickly supersede us by massive measures in every domain. This will occur, they argue, because superhuman achievement is the same as ordinary human achievement except that all the relevant computations are performed much more quickly, in what Bostrom dubs “speed superintelligence.”

So what about the highest level of human achievement—creative innovation? Are our most creative artists and thinkers about to be massively surpassed by machines?

No.

Human creative achievement, because of the way it is socially embedded, will not succumb to advances in artificial intelligence. To say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to.

This claim is not absolute: it depends on the norms that we allow to govern our culture and our expectations of technology. Human beings have, in the past, attributed great power and genius even to lifeless totems. It is entirely possible that we will come to treat artificially intelligent machines as so vastly superior to us that we will naturally attribute creativity to them. Should that happen, it will not be because machines have outstripped us. It will be because we will have denigrated ourselves.

. . . .

Can we imagine a machine of such superhuman creative ability that it brings about changes in what we understand music to be, as Schoenberg did?

That’s what I claim a machine cannot do. Let’s see why.

Computer music composition systems have existed for quite some time. In 1965, at the age of 17, Kurzweil himself, using a precursor of the pattern recognition systems that characterize deep-learning algorithms today, programmed a computer to compose recognizable music. Variants of this technique are used today. Deep-learning algorithms have been able to take as input a bunch of Bach chorales, for instance, and compose music so characteristic of Bach’s style that it fools even experts into thinking it is original. This is mimicry. It is what an artist does as an apprentice: copy and perfect the style of others instead of working in an authentic, original voice. It is not the kind of musical creativity that we associate with Bach, never mind with Schoenberg’s radical innovation.

So what do we say? Could there be a machine that, like Schoenberg, invents a whole new way of making music? Of course we can imagine, and even make, such a machine. Given an algorithm that modifies its own compositional rules, we could easily produce a machine that makes music as different from what we now consider good music as Schoenberg did then.

But this is where it gets complicated.

We count Schoenberg as a creative innovator not just because he managed to create a new way of composing music but because people could see in it a vision of what the world should be. Schoenberg’s vision involved the spare, clean, efficient minimalism of modernity. His innovation was not just to find a new algorithm for composing music; it was to find a way of thinking about what music is that allows it to speak to what is needed now.

Some might argue that I have raised the bar too high. Am I arguing, they will ask, that a machine needs some mystic, unmeasurable sense of what is socially necessary in order to count as creative? I am not—for two reasons.

First, remember that in proposing a new, mathematical technique for musical composition, Schoenberg changed our understanding of what music is. It is only creativity of this tradition-defying sort that requires some kind of social sensitivity. Had listeners not experienced his technique as capturing the anti-­traditionalism at the heart of the radical modernity emerging in early-­20th-century Vienna, they might not have heard it as something of aesthetic worth. The point here is that radical creativity is not an “accelerated” version of quotidian creativity. Schoenberg’s achievement is not a faster or better version of the type of creativity demonstrated by Oscar Straus or some other average composer: it’s fundamentally different in kind.

Second, my argument is not that the creator’s responsiveness to social necessity must be conscious for the work to meet the standards of genius. I am arguing instead that we must be able to interpret the work as responding that way. It would be a mistake to interpret a machine’s composition as part of such a vision of the world. The argument for this is simple.

Claims like Kurzweil’s that machines can reach human-level intelligence assume that to have a human mind is just to have a human brain that follows some set of computational algorithms—a view called computationalism. But though algorithms can have moral implications, they are not themselves moral agents. We can’t count the monkey at a typewriter who accidentally types out Othello as a great creative playwright. If there is greatness in the product, it is only an accident. We may be able to see a machine’s product as great, but if we know that the output is merely the result of some arbitrary act or algorithmic formalism, we cannot accept it as the expression of a vision for human good.

For this reason, it seems to me, nothing but another human being can properly be understood as a genuinely creative artist. Perhaps AI will someday proceed beyond its computationalist formalism, but that would require a leap that is unimaginable at the moment. We wouldn’t just be looking for new algorithms or procedures that simulate human activity; we would be looking for new materials that are the basis of being human.

Link to the rest at MIT Technology Review

PG suggests that humans and AI are likely to have a prickly relationship for quite a long time.

PG wonders how the author of the OP would regard creative genius as manifested in humans with severe mental illnesses or addictions to drugs or alcohol.

Vincent Van Gogh spent time in a psychiatric clinic.

Edvard Munch wrote, “I can not get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them.” His best-known painting, The Scream, can certainly be interpreted as an expression of someone in the throes of mental illness.

 

 

Quite a number of well-known writers have died from the effects of their chronic alcoholic consumption.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, Grace Metalious, Dorothy Parker, and Carson McCullers come to mind.

Is a severely-impaired human being more truly creative than an unimpaired artificial intelligence?

Five Young Women With Prize-Winning Book Collections

7 September 2018

From The Paris Review:

In 2017, Honey & Wax Booksellers established an annual prize for American women book collectors, aged 30 years and younger. The idea took shape when Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney, the bookstore’s owners, observed that “the women who regularly buy books from us are less likely to call themselves “collectors” than the men, even when those women have spent years passionately collecting books.” By providing a financial incentive, and a forum in which to celebrate and share their collections, O’Donnell and Romney hope to encourage a new generation of women. As they say, “The act of collecting books is often a private and obsessive pursuit, and that’s part of its appeal, but collecting is also a way to connect with others: to inform those who share your interests, and to inspire those who don’t share them yet. And by rescuing and recontextualizing pieces of the historical record, collectors contribute to a larger conversation across generations.” This year, one contestant wrote to them, ““I already feel more like a real collector just by applying for this prize.”

We are pleased to unveil the winner of the 2018 Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize, who will receive a thousand dollars, as well as four honorable mentions, who will each receive two hundred and fifty dollars.

. . . .

WINNER

Jessica Jordan: The work of American illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon

Jessica Jordan, 27, is a former bookseller and current graduate student in English at Stanford. She has collected books designed by prolific American illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon. The Dillons’ experience as interracial partners (in life and work) informed their approach to graphic design over five decades. “We decided early in our career that we wanted to represent all races and show people that were rarely seen,” they wrote. Famously versatile and productive, the Dillons collaborated on an untold number of commercial book projects, from pulp science fiction (winning the Hugo Award for Best Artist) to children’s stories (winning the Caldecott Medal, twice) to iconic paperback editions of James Baldwin, Madeleine L’Engle, Chinua Achebe, and Isabel Allende. Jordan notes that “the Dillons’ work is unsigned on many of their early book covers – meaning that the burden of identification is left solely to my own abilities . . . as I have grown my collection, I have also been training my eye to see what others don’t, and nothing else puts a spring in a book collector’s step quite like that feeling.”

. . . .

Honey & Wax says, “We admired the depth of Jordan’s collection, and the sense of discovery that animates it, especially as it relates to previously uncredited Dillon titles, and to the afterlife of the Dillons’ imagery in the Black Power movement.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Is PG alone in feeling this is a bit strange as a topic for The Paris Review? Other articles on the current website include, “Dorothy Parker, The Art of Fiction No. 13” and “Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Grief.”

PG has nothing against Ms. Jordan (and wishes her well in her studies and her collecting), book collectors, book collections, women (regardless of what they collect or don’t) or Honey & Wax, whose slogan is: “Use books as bees use flowers.”

But a prize for “American women book collectors, aged 30 years and younger” to be featured in The Paris Review? Are there prizes for British women book collectors, aged 30 years and younger? Spanish women book collectors, aged 31-35? Old book collectors? Czech book collectors or (heaven forfend!) any subset of male book collectors?

To demonstrate he finds nothing intrinsically wrong with book collections or photos of book collections, here is a random photo of a portion of one of the physical bookshelves lurking in the bowels of Casa PG which The Paris Review is free to republish. (PG expects no prizes and realizes there are no discernable principles of organization governing his bookshelves.)

 

If, with the literate

24 August 2018

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

~ Dorothy Parker writing about Oscar Wilde

I’d rather have

23 August 2018

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

~ Dorothy Parker

If you have any young friends

22 August 2018

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

~ Dorothy Parker

I require three things

21 August 2018

I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.

~ Dorothy Parker

Ongoingness

5 August 2018

From The Guardian:

For anyone who has ever kept a diary, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (first published in the US in 2015) will give pause for thought. The American writer kept a diary over 25 years and it was 800,000 words long. She elects not to publish a word of it in Ongoingness. It turns out she does not wish to look back at what she wrote. This absorbing book – brief as a breath – examines the need to record. It seems, even if she never spells it out, that writing the diary was a compulsive rebuffing of mortality. Like all diarists, she was trying to commandeer time. A diary gives the writer the illusion of stopping time in its tracks. And time – making her peace with its ongoingness – is Manguso’s obsession. Her book hints at diary-keeping as neurosis, a hoarding that is almost a syndrome, a malfunction, a grief at having no way to halt loss.

. . . .

A good aphorism is a raft: it carries you. Even – particularly – bitter and twisted ones should have a perversely feelgood factor. In its concision, an aphorism could not be further from the unexpurgated journal Manguso wrote in the present tense – another denial of passing time. The best aphorisms are witty. When Oscar Wilde writes: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”, he delicately tilts a thought on its axis, turning the received wisdom inside out. Dorothy Parker turns the tables similarly when she quips: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” George Bernard Shaw’s “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” is a playful reminder of the tyranny of certainty expressed without doubt.

The need for comfort through language is implicit – and sometimes explicit – in Manguso’s work. A good aphorism will comfort: you might want to stick it on the fridge – or in your memory. Although she claims to have no fondness for beginnings and endings, her fear of formlessness is apparent. Perhaps she seized on the aphorism as a form of elegant punctuation, a new way to stop time with the (in every sense) arresting line. Both books are written in protest at the void and in fear of insignificance.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG notes the book is published by Graywolf Press, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, “a nonprofit publisher of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and genre-defying literature whose aim is to foster new thinking about what it means to live in the world today.”

Whatever else one might think of Graywolf Press, someone working on its behalf managed to get a review of a three-year-old book in The Guardian.

PG will comment further by way of an aphorism:

The only way to read a book of aphorisms without being bored is to open it at random and, having found something that interests you, close the book and meditate.

Prince Charles-Josef de Ligne
(1735 – 1814)
Austrian field marshal and writer

The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

8 May 2018

From The Guardian:

In recent years, the group biography has become a spirited mainstay of the publishing landscape: a means both of revisiting and reinterpreting already familiar times, people and places, and of bringing together between hard covers lives that might not be deserving of an individual doorstop. In Sharp, though, Michelle Dean has assembled not so much a group as a small crowd: her book, with its title that brings to mind suddenly puckered lips, has the feeling of a cocktail party at which several people drink too much, nearly everyone talks too loudly, and no one really likes anyone else. Through this gathering, she wanders, ashtray in one hand, dishcloth in the other. Dean relishes her guests’ bad behaviour – you might call her a little starstruck – but only to a degree. As the evening goes on, she will sometimes find herself apologising for them, these women who are so clever and talented, and yet so madly competitive, so stubbornly reluctant to attach the word “feminist” to their neon-bright names.

. . . .

Most began as journalists, making an art, as Dean’s subtitle has it, of “having an opinion”; some then went on to write acclaimed novels, and other kinds of books. Most of their names are well known: Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, Rebecca West. Others, at least for British readers, may be less familiar: Janet Malcolm, whose singular, often controversial interviews appeared in the New Yorker; Pauline Kael, once the same magazine’s acerbic film critic; Renata Adler, the reporter whose home was also there until she put the literary equivalent of a bomb under her career. Dean gives each one about the same amount of attention, although it’s clear that she enjoys the company of some more than others. The playwright Lillian Hellman and the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, however, she collides with so fleetingly, they appear before the reader like gatecrashers or, more likely, additions to the guest list so embarrassingly last minute she can hardly bear to do much more than pour them their first sidecar.

What unites them, besides their trade and their talent? Dean talks, in her preface, of their remarkable achievements in a world that “was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything”; of the way they roundly defied expectations. But there’s also the adjective of her title: sharp. People did not always respond favourably to the “sting” of their words. What would have seemed daring and deeply smart coming from a man appeared only haughty, inappropriate and unkind when served up by a woman.

. . . .

Didion, in her tiny dresses, her wrists like clay pipes, was just so much surface and “swank”. Dean, a journalist herself, sympathises with all this; her book – though these are my words, not hers – is for any woman who has ever silenced a dinner table by being just a little too quick, too knowing, too mocking. Am I allowed to say that I have more than once done just that? Maybe I am.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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