Thursday, January 24, 2013

...more things to worry about...

As if that isn't anxiety inducing enough...
Due to having my inbox "outside the pale" of crap-filtering, I get a hundred of these everyday -- it's scary what-all the Russians want to do:

To: <>
From: "Derek Dotson" <>
Subject: Russian sluts want to cune for you

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

People for the Ethical Treatment
of Autonomous Robots

A conceptual installation (for the moment) comprising my first robot car in a wire cage, much like those seen at shopping-mall animal adoption operations. The car paces back and forth in the cage and responds to peoples' presence in different ways depending on its mood. If you pick it up it will spin its wheels

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Spectacular Simulacra


From the '50s to the 70s there were a number of notable collaborations between artists, scientists, and engineers, many of them inspired by the new field of Cybernetics. They eventually foundered on the Scylla and Charybdis of ego and corporate finance. In the 1970s, independent funding dried up, commercial electronic devices undermined homebrew experimentalists, Conceptual Art -- with what I view as a mis-reading of the meaning of Shannon's Information Theory -- replaced Praxis with Platonism, and Postmodern Critical Theory swept the rest before its mighty incomprehensibility.

Instead of a new sensibility, e.g., Cybernetically based Artificial Life, what we got was MTV.

Now, well into a new millennium, we have a chance to correct this. For the most part the machines we have created are Automata rather than Autonomous beings. We need to relax our desire for control over what we create. We also need to move them out of Simulated virtual environments and Situate them in physical reality. Without the constraints of a grounding rod in the real world they drift on fumes and are unable to cross the syntactic/semantic barrier to understanding.

When machines are autonomous they may no longer be of any use to us. Their behavior and morphology may not be aesthetically interesting. They do not have to explain their motivations or behavior. They can just live their own lives.

Complexity Science, in areas such as self-organization and artificial life, provide inspiration as well as mechanism for this work. And strangely enough it may be artists who are best positioned to accomplish the project -- Where else but in the arts can a robot just relax and not have to assemble widgets or blow things up 24/7? However Art's research arms have atrophied to the point that it might be better to use a new title: Bricoleur.

(And yes, thanks to Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard for suggesting the essay's title.)


A three part essay on this blog:

I also have a timeline of relevant events: Schip's timeline.
And my extended abstract: Ich Bin Un Bricoleur.

Into the Grey Areas

(This is part 3 of 3 of my essay A Spectacular Simulacra. If you haven't been following along, see the abstract and index here.)

Compare and Contrast

Compressorhead -- Ace of Spades

Georgia Tech -- Shimon, robotic marimba player

There are two ways of looking at these pictures:

Frank Popper (1993), Art of the Electronic Age

There is no doubt that this conjunction of the real and the virtual engendered by simulation is at the heart of present research by many technological artists. They consider that 'virtual space', 'virtual environments', or 'virtual realities' in general usher in an entirely new era in art, allowing the participants a multi-sensorial experience never encountered before.

The key words 'artificial intelligence' as an aesthetic problem open up a vast, time-worn discussion of the relationship between man and the machine. Artificial intelligence embraces techniques which enable machines, and in particular computers, to simulate human thought processes, particularly those of memory and deducation [sic].

  Hans Haacke (1967), Untitled Statement
In the past, a sculpture or painting had meaning only at the grace of the viewer. His projections into a piece of marble or canvas with particular configurations provided the programme and made them significant. Without his emotional and intellectual reactions, the material remained nothing but stone and fabric. The systems's programme, on the other hand, is absolutely independent of the viewer's mental participation. It remains autonomous -- aloof from the viewer. As a tree's programme is not touched by the emotions of lovers in its shadow, so the system's programme is untouched by the viewer's feelings and thoughts.

Naturally, also a system releases a gulf of subjective projections in the viewer. These projections, however, can be measured relative to the system's actual programme. Compared to traditional sculpture, it has become a partner of the viewer rather than being subjected to his whims. A system is not imagined; it is real.

In the first video we have a masterpiece of pre-programmed German engineering (not to be stereotypical, but just imagine what the Swiss would do with it, eh?). In the second the machine gets a bit of a chance to decide how it will behave.

In the first quote Popper posits that technology is used to simulate virtual environments for the viewer's delectation. In the second, which is a founding document of Systems Art, Haacke partners the art-system with the viewer in the real world.

So, we can have machines that are either pre-determined Automata or else Autonomous beings. And they can be either virtual or real, i.e., Simulated or Situated in reality. One path gives us total control. The other requires, if not abdication of control, at least collaboration with our materials and creations.

An Autonomous Situation

Art can be ... or could have been ... a research program:
Repetto, Douglas (2010).
Doing It Wrong
(from the 2010 Symposium -- Frontiers of Engineering: Reports on Leading-Edge Engineering)

Although musical innovators throughout history would have articulated these ideas differently, I believe they shared the central tenets that creative acts require deviations from the norm and that creative progress is born not of optimization but of variance. More explicit contemporary engagement with these ideas leads one to the concept of creative research, of music making with goals and priorities that are different from those of their traditional precursors -- perhaps sonic friction, in addition to ear-pleasing consonances, for example, or "let’s see what happens" rather than "I’m going to tell you a story."

The problem is that most machines, even the of the art variety, are well controlled models. But what is interesting is new behavior, not the recapitulation of what went before. Rather than models we should be building autonomous beings that have lives of their own and behave in new ways. This is a research program.

When a system gets a chance to decide how it will behave we may not perceive the results as aesthetically interesting. From our lofty height we might not recognize it as living. And for now, it doesn't even have to be very complicated. One can make the argument that a thermostat responds to its feelings of being too hot or too cold and adjusts its environment accordingly. Since we have no idea what its internal mental states might be this description is just as valid as the physical explanation of how the sensors and actuators work. (I need to emphasize that I am not anthropomorphizing machines here but rather mechanizing human responses, putting both on a similar level.) Giving machines lives that are of no practical use while not going out of the way to make them attractive, didactic, or transparent allows them to rise through ontological cracks to just being themselves.

In a virtual world where interactivity and intelligence are simulated this can't be done easily. The beauty and curse of simulation is that it can respond in any way we like; we can make up any structure, or none at all. This is our Spectacular Simulacra: It's potentially all noise and no signal. Just like listening to a radio tuned between stations, when there is no signal there is very little to be learned from an interaction. On a large scale, this is a reason that wikipedia is considered unsuitable for academic references. Anyone can edit it to say anything they like, and it may not be corrected -- whatever that means -- quickly or accurately. The US Congress has been a serial offender in this respect.

However systems that are situated in the real world get input that already has structure; the constraints on the system make it work. It is this interaction with the world, the constraints and the underlying materials, that gives us the feedback we need to learn and function. If a machine interacts with a physical environment it has a better chance of grounding its knowledge and jumping the syntactic/semantic fence. As an example, you may use the phrase "fire is hot" in a syntactically correct sentence. But I assert that the only way you will learn the semantic meaning, and dare I say the underlying semiotic relationships, is if I hold your feet to the fire.

[edit, added 1/27/13]
When talking of living machines with minds of their own, the specter of Dr. Frankenstein's Monster appears. What we forget is that the Monster wasn't a monster until after it accidentally killed and was further persecuted for being different. Looking deeper into the question, the fears that Machines Will Enslave Us are rooted in the assumption that those machines will behave as animals (and humans) do. But when creating our artificial life forms we might dispense with the Darwinian necessities of Fear, Disgust, Anger, Greed -- and the rest of the deadly sins upon which modern economics is based -- and instead have them optimize the desire to, e.g., be the best possible musical improviser who knows when to lay back and listen and when to barge right in.

So where do we start?

Is Chaos Theory Postmodern Science?

This is the title of a paper -- which seems to have vanishingly close to zero citations -- by a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies who comes to the unsurprising conclusion that:
Postmodern science does, in fact, exist, and literature just may be it.
Mackey, J. L. (2006).
Is Chaos Theory Postmodern Science?

(in reconstruction: studies in contemporary culture, Jan 24, 2006)

Now, depending on your parser, this is either a tautology or a category error. However, if one reads "Chaos Theory" as Complexity Science, it does contain a kernel of truth. At its roots, Post Modernism is interested in systemic structures. In its branches it deconstructs those systems to find underlying paradigmatic narratives -- assumptions -- which (in)form, and even create, the structures. Complexity Science, rooted in Cybernetics, also takes a systems view. It shares with Post Modernism an interest in how underlying structure gives rise to system wide behavior. Complexity also provides Emergence as a framework for considering that systems may be more than the sum of their parts -- accepting that some phenomenon cannot be subjected to Modernist reduction.

As a counter example to the Mackey, and in more depth, I recommend these two books which look into some of the background and possibilities. (Note that I'm biased as the authors are friends...)

Victoria Alexander posits self-organization as an explanation for the perception that natural phenomenon have goals or develop towards some final purpose (teleology). In chapters 1-4 she "deconstructs" what purpose means and how it might arise from otherwise non-directed mechanisms, both in nature and human artifact. As a bonus, chapter 5 is a (fairly) clear explanation of C.S. Peirce's semiotics...
Alexander, V. N. (2011).
The Biologist's Mistress: Rethinking Self-organization in Art, Literature, and Nature.
Emergent Publications.
From the chapter 1:
What I do share with all teleologists, authentic or so-called, is a deeply felt folk-sense of purposefulness in nature. It is clear to me that many processes and patterns in nature can't be fully explained by Newton's laws or Darwin's mechanism of natural selection. These are processes that are organized in ways that spontaneously create, sustain and further that organization. Although I believe that mechanistic reductionism is inadequate to describe these processes, I don't believe that purposeful events and actions require guidance from the outside -- from divine plans or engineering deities. Nature's purposeful processes are self-organizing and inherently adaptive, which is the essence of what it is to be teleological.

John Johnston provides a history of Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and related fields with an analysis of their significance to modern culture. If you are not Lacanian I would skip chapter 2, but Section III, Machinic Intelligence, is especially relevant to the program outlined here.
Johnston, J. (2008).
The allure of machinic life: cybernetics, artificial life, and the new AI.
MIT Press.
From the preface:
This book explores a single topic: the creation of new forms of "machinic life" in cybernetics, artificial life (ALife), and artificial intelligence (AI). By machinic life I mean the forms of nascent life that have been made to emerge in and through technical interactions in human-constructed environments. Thus the webs of connection that sustain machinic life are material (or virtual) but not directly of the natural world. Although automata such as the eighteenth-century clockwork dolls and other figures can be seen as precursors, the first forms of machinic life appeared in the ‘‘lifelike’’ machines of the cyberneticists and in the early programs and robots of AI. Machinic life, unlike earlier mechanical forms, has a capacity to alter itself and to respond dynamically to changing situations.

Here we are

Self-organization and Artificial Life are areas of Complexity Science that can provide inspiration as well as mechanism. Although some of the original work in these fields may have been more Art than Science -- making grander claims than could be supported in the, as they say, dominant paradigm -- years of more cautious work have produced concrete results. On the other hand there is something to be said for throwing caution to the winds...

Because they have no requirement to make useful artifacts or produce scientifically supported results, artists might be in an ideal position to create these machines. This would also encourage d├ętente in the science-wars, bringing the Humanities and Sciences closer to productive collaboration. But Art has now become identified with Spectacle rather than research, so I propose a new title: Bricoleur.

So far, work in the arts has been done in a sporadic fashion due to confusion about both purposes and methods when using advanced technology and especially computers. Generative Art -- art which emerges from computer programs -- has been conflated with Artificial Life -- programs that have their own behaviors. The following paper skates between the two but seems to come down on the "make pretty things" side.
McCormack, J., & Dorin, A. (2001, January).
Art, emergence, and the computational sublime.

In Proceedings of Second Iteration:
A Conference on Generative Systems in the Electronic Arts.
Melbourne: CEMA (pp. 67-81).

In a design sense, it is possible to make creative systems that exhibit emergent properties beyond the designer's conscious intentions, hence creating an artefact, process, or system that is "more" than was conceived by the designer. This is not unique to computer-based design, but it offers an important glimpse into the possible usefulness of such design techniques -- "letting go of control" as an alternative to the functionalist, user-centred modes of design. Nature can be seen as a complex system that can be loosely transferred to the process of design, with the hope that human poiesis may somehow obtain the elements of physis so revered in the design world. Mimicry of natural processes with a view to emulation, while possibly sufficient for novel design, does not alone necessarily translate as effective methodology for art however.

Whereas this next paper gets us moving in the right direction. It was prompted by an exhibition: Emergence -- Art and Artificial Life (Beall Center for Art and Technology, UCI, December 2009). The author and a handful of other artists have been experimenting with complex systems for some time -- see the end of my timeline for pointers to various work that I've been able to ferret out of the 'net.
Penny, Simon (2009).
Art and Artificial Life a Primer

4.1 An Aesthetics of Behavior
With the access to computing, some artists recognized that here was a technology which permitted the modeling of behavior. Behavior - action in and with respect to the world - was a quality which was now amenable to design and aesthetic decision-making. Artificial Life presented the titillating possibility of computer based behavior which went beyond simple tit-for-tat interaction, beyond hyper-links and look-up tables of pre-programmed responses to possible inputs, even beyond AI based inference -- to quasi-biological conceptions of machines, or groups of machines that adapted to each other and to changes in their environment in potentially unexpected, emergent and ‘creative’ ways.

We have a long way to go...

And it's not going to be easy:
Is Slime Mold Smarter Than a Roomba?
IEEE Spectrum (December 2012)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Perfect Storm

(This is part 2 of 3 of my essay A Spectacular Simulacra. If you haven't been following along, see the abstract and index here.)

So why did our beloved Science and Technology in the Arts seem to die on the vine in the 1970s? (Please note that this section is USA-centric and more polemic than incontestable).


Conceptual Art -- "The dematerialization of the art object" (Lippard) -- subsumed Systems Art and abandoned the object altogether. The focus shifted to social and political critique, helped along by Feminism and Performance. Although, as Shanken points out, the antipathy between Conceptual Art and Technology is illusory, the Art/Tech world lost its steam. The last little dying breaths of collaboration appeared in the Tele-communication movement, where artists working with NASA and others attempted to use newly open satellite communications technologies to connect to and collaborate with each other world-wide.

[edit, added 1/27/13]
Hans Haacke's work is emblematic of, if not pivotal to, this shift into conceptual art practice. Around 1970 he made a rapid change of medium from physical to social systems, which he claims was a natural progression. He also denies that he is a Conceptual Artist -- which may be the ultimate in Conceptualism.  (artist interview in: Grasskamp, W., etal (2004). Hans Haacke. Phaidon.)

Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence were competing endeavors that had common roots (I have overly conflated them). But their strongest link was completely severed by the Minsky/Pappert take down of neural networks. Rather than taking a systems wide view, AI tended to work reductively from the top down with logical and symbolic representations. These however didn't capture the essence of Intelligence, and irrational exuberance was trumped by reality:
Within a generation ... the problem of creating 'artificial intelligence' will substantially be solved.
Minsky (1967), Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall (p. 2)
But by the early 1980s rule based Expert Systems -- which seem to be inherently fragile -- were the main success story.

For an interesting look at where Cybernetics and Systems thinking went (into the social sciences) in 1973, have a look at this conversation between Stewart Brand, Gregory Bateson, and Margaret Mead: For God’s Sake, Margaret.

At the same time the Hippy-Back-to-Nature thing was in full swing. Partially as a reaction to the Military Industrial Complex's complicity in the Vietnam War, Technology became Evil. I find this simplistic even though it is name-dropped in many places. While a certain cohort moved into the hills and became potters, electronic musicians and video artists were well aware of the provenance of their toys, and all the while thought of their work as a perversion thereof.


Maybe we can blame it all on the Nixon Administration? There was a recession in the USA in the early 70's and the money dried up.

As Hans Haacke has shown, the corporate funding model for art-extravaganzas shifted from research oriented -- 9 Evenings -- to blockbusters -- The Treasures of King Tut -- giving the corporations more widely appreciated social capital bang for their buck. Even today, a reviewer can just flat out say, "Most of the public doesn't like modernism" (Acocella, Bride Wars, New Yorker Dec 24, 2012). But our corporate marketing masters figured this out in 1970.

In a similar vein, the 1969 Mansfield Amendment "prohibited military funding of research that lacked a direct or apparent relationship to specific military function" (wikipedia). This cutoff a significant source of support for the more open-ended and unproductive components of Artificial Intelligence, and pushed research into what seemed to be more immediately rewarding areas.


Electronic audio and video tools became commercially available and (mostly) affordable. These tools were largely targeted at traditional uses, e.g., keyboard synths and cinematic effect generators. For sale to the Lowest Common Denominator, they were easy to use for "normative" purposes and difficult for anything else (unless you could hack them). Personal computers became available in the late 70's and followed the same pattern, providing mass appeal applications and games while being reasonably recalcitrant for anything else. What followed was pop music, video games, and CGI movies.

The commodity Art Market did battle with Conceptualism and won. Conceptual Artists thought that if there were no objects to sell, no selling could take place (it's not entirely clear how they were to make an actual living in this system). But the Market quickly figured out how to sell documentation.


With the collapse of independent funding, artists retreated to compartmentalized teaching jobs in academe. There, in the 1980s, Postmodern Critical Theory swept the flotsam aside in a flood of seemingly erudite incomprehensibility:
Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to noise and silence: Towards a philosophy of sound art. Continuum.

In this sense postmodernism is to modernism the noise of heterogeneity, working outside and across disciplines, squandering its systematic valuation in decadent centrifugality. The postmodern is a radicalization of the modernist understanding of the artwork.
And that's the (cherry picked) Reformed Standard Version talking...It does mean something, but could surely have been expressed more clearly.

It is interesting that, just prior to Le Deluge, the Conceptual theorists embraced the Analytic and dismissed Contenential Philosophy (see Kosuth, (1969) Art After Philosophy), but they often share similar ideas about de-centralized, contingent knowledge -- and occasionally their discursive style. The PoMo Revenge of the Literature Professors lead to the Science Wars which alienated the sciences from the humanities. As a balance -- although the authors willfully ignore the good bits -- see:
Sokal, A., & Bricmont, J. (1999). Fashionable nonsense: Postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science. Picador.

The Result

What we got was MTV, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and Call of Duty: Black Ops (which BTW has the same number of wiki footnote references as the entire History of Artificial Intelligence).

I know. I know. What about Photoshop, Final Cut, Protools, MaxMSP, yadayada? They all (with the possible exception of MaxMSP) enable harder-faster-deeper production in existing media rather than creating new aesthetic models.

Instead of a new sensibility, e.g., cybernetically based artificial life, we were sucked into a Spectacular Simulacrum.

The Illusion of Control

The real problem is C3: Communications, Command, and Control...

Roy Ascott's Cybernetic Art Matrix

Ascott, R. (1966). Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision. Cybernetica, Journal of the International Association for Cybernetics (Namur), 9.

Fundamentally Cybernetics concerns the idea of the perfectibility of systems; it is concerned in practice with the procurement of effective action by means of self-organising systems. It recognises the idea of the perfectibility of Man, of the possibility of further evolution in the biological and social sphere. In this it shares its optimism with Molecular Biology. Bio-cybernetics, the simulation of living processes, genetic manipulation, the behavioural sciences, automatic environments, together constitute an understanding of the human being which calls for and will in time produce new human values and a new morality.

Salvador Allende's Project Cybersyn

Allende commissioned the British cybernetician Stafford Beer to build a computer system that could be used to manage Chile’s economy. The system, known as Project Cybersyn, was never completely implemented. It was however used to monitor and divert scab drivers (ironic italics my own) during a trucking strike, but that was more a matter of communication than homeostatic control.

This is the Modernist narrative in a nutshell

From the Industrial Revolution onward we expected not only to understand, but to control all of nature. The meta-narratives of Truth, Progress, and Sovereignty were (a tiny bit) over-optimistic. Post-Modernism questioned these stories without, IMHO, effectively addressing it's own narratives, and, without admitting that there are (un-capitalized) truths that we might know.

Once you peel back the rhetoric I think this is the mistake at the heart of the Science Wars. It was a critique of Technology, but Science got tarred with the same Modernist brush. Most (many, at least a few) scientists do not believe that they know, or even can, know it all (engineers on the other hand...) If we think of our experience as a Hidden Markov Model (...ya,ya I hate to keep referencing wikipedia, but this is a pretty good article...), we may be sovereign over the observations, but they give us only a glimpse of the underlying mechanism. [edit, added 1/27/13] To me this is startlingly similar to Post Modern epistemology and should give us a place to begin repairing the rift.

[edit, added 1/27/13]
The conflation of Science and Engineering has deeply affected the discourse between Art and Science.  It's one thing for artists to work with technology, they have always been early adopters. But working with Scientists is -- or should be -- different. Too many times what is billed as Art/Science Collaboration is either, a) artists getting access to cool sciency toys; or, b) scientists getting access to cool arty presentations. While those are both noble endeavors they have little to do with actual collaboration between the participants.

So, if we can no longer Know and Control, what can we do?

(continue to Part 3: Into the Grey Areas)