About white men and machines

Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.
AI: Recent developments in the field of intelligent machines clearly demand a reflection. The latest book by Arthur I. Miller is dedicated to this, but it only partially fulfills its promise.

The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI-Powered Creativity
Author: Arthur I. Miller
Publisher: MIT Press,

Humans are slowly merging with machines. We have a most intimate relationship with microcomputers in our cell phones; computers are being used in driverless cars; we are surrounded by devices, from remote-controlled refrigerators to heating systems, all connected via the web into the so-called internet of things (IoT) and underpinned by computer systems performing tasks that we call artificial intelligence (AI). The belief that machine intelligence can never reach the complexity of the human mind has become obsolete as «machines can increasingly teach themselves how to perform complex tasks that not long ago were thought to require the unique intelligence of humans.» Questions about computers having emotions and feeling fear are not mere science fiction anymore. The possibility that the intelligence of machines will surpass that of humans, and what might be its consequences, raises concern. Unlike dystopian scenarios about the downside of AI in movies, newspapers, and his fellow scholars’ writings, Arthur l. Miller promises to «explore the upside of AI: its cultural side, what its creativity holds in store».

The focus on creativity is the main advantage of his book, The Artist in the Machine. In it, Miller interviewed key players developing AI that creates art, literature, and music and has collected a broad spectrum of contemporary computer artists and their most important works, providing an interesting insight into the field of computer arts. From computers, generating intricate fictional plots in literature, to neural networks generating extraordinary new sounds, composing experimental and avant-garde music, and to convolutional ones with the ability to recognise faces, find patterns in data and power driverless cars, but can also produce images not programmed into them. From the world’s first computer-composed musical Beyond the Fence (2016) by Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor to the photographic portraits of non-existent people in Portraits of Imaginary People (2017) by Mike Tyka, the collection is impressive.

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Portraits Of Imaginary People, by Mike Tyka (Anteism)

The notion of genius

However, the focus on creativity is also this book’s weakest point. Miller’s premise that «at the nascent moment of creativity, the moment of inspiration, boundaries blur between artist and scientist» (page xviii) promises inter-disciplinarily and open-mindedness, key necessities if one is to explore creativity in computers. Miller, on the contrary, puts all the stress on the notion of genius. The effect is very similar to the Relics: Einstein’s Brain (1994), the BBC documentary about Dr. Kenji Sugimoto, a professor in Science History from Osaka who spent years studying Albert Einstein and his personality. To complete his works, he travels to America to find Einstein’s brain. The film starts as Sugimoto arrives to the airport and then follows him in his search for the remains of the genius’ brain. After a long journey across the US, Sugimoto finally arrives at the home of Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed Einstein’s autopsy and keeps his brain stored in glass jars in a closet. When asked, Harvey shows the brain, takes it out of the jar and cuts off a small sample for Sugimoto to take with him. Kevin Hull, the film’s director, remembered after the films’ screening at the Vienna Film Festival, how Harvey did this in front of the complete film crew and without hesitation. This filmic portrait of an obsession with the brain of a genius created an awkward feeling, and I had a similar impression when reading The Artist in the Machine.

the focus on creativity is also this book’s weakest point.

Miller’s portraits of model-geniuses are full of intimate details, like, Picasso’s life was a series of disastrous liaisons, Erwin Schrödinger enjoyed an open marriage and often traveled with both his wife and his current girlfriend, and Einstein had had at least two intense romantic relationships by the time he discovered relativity theory. For Miller, these details matter since they prove one of the hallmarks of geniality. But, disregarding the contexts in which these geniuses lived, Miller generates a notion of creativity separated from cultural, social, political, and historical conditions. Such a notion can, of course, not contribute to the main goal of this book, that is, to provide a positive vision of human society based on the symbiosis of humans and intelligent machines. Because the potential of machines to produce art, literature, and music, however thoroughly explicated within the book, can’t explain «what is really going on in the field» of AI. It also can’t deny the negative aspects, such as, the fear that AI might steal jobs since both might exist simultaneously. Actually, many of the experts interviewed are employees of global corporations and their artworks are by-products of other activities. What drives the development of science and technology in the contemporary global north is the economy, not arts.

Miller’s notion of the genius is also too narrow itself because alongside technology, humanity changes too. Just as the introduction of writing changed ancient society and the way humans think, the development of intelligent machines today requires we rethink old notions and among them those of intelligence and creativity. Initiatives to do so are documented in the book itself, for example in an anecdote about the chess champion Garry Kasparov who, after a match with the computer Deep Blue, said he sensed «a new kind of intelligence».

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Relics: Einstein’s Brain, a film by Kevin Hull

White man’s creativity

Miller does not follow this path. On the contrary, even personal details about geniuses are adjusted to his narrow view. Mileva Marić, a wife and a fellow physicist of Albert Einstein is mentioned with no reference to the debate about her legacy and the ongoing discussions about her possible contribution to her husband’s theories (as in the journal Nature). Miller claims just the opposite, quote, «Maleva’s influence on his relativity paper was distinctly negative; he succeeded despite her.» Mileva’s name is misspelled and the book gives no information regarding the sources that can corroborate this claim.

What drives the development of science and technology in the contemporary global north is the economy, not arts.

Just like women, Africans too are excluded from the The Artist in the Machine. Even if there was an excellent collection on What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? (editor Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga) published by MIT Press in 2013. Thus, regardless of its aim, the The Artist in the Machine is mostly a book about the creativity of white men.