October 5, 2015

Zaha Hadid - Science and technology reimagine imagination

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions.” -Albert Einstein

It might be hard to believe but computers are painting and sculpting, they are writing stories, jokes, poetry, even music. The best part? Some are real works of art. For now the magic still happens in collaboration with artists made of flesh and blood but many admit they could never have achieved such heights without the aid of their creative machines. I say this tongue in cheek but things are moving fast.

The process by which technology enhances creativity and births new forms of art has been going on for quite a while now. As a matter of fact, it has been going on for at least 50,000 years. From the charcoal used in cave paintings to a computer running photoshop, the tools that helped humans materialize their vision which in turn allowed them to enrich themselves creatively have changed immensely. Tools and imagination exist in symbiosis, feeding off each other. Imagination brings the tools into existence, the tools allow new forms of art to be developed which can enrich imagination even further.

Now although those tools have changed immensely, in some ways they haven't really changed much at all. Sure, when an artist makes a mistake, accidentally coloring outside the lines, this could serve as inspiration for him to develop a new style but, except for some poetic art critics, not many would interpret that as his work actually speaking back to him as if it were making a suggestion. However, in this day and age, that is beginning to change. The tools really are beginning to talk back and "art making suggestions" can now be taken quite literally...

For the first time in human history, our tools are in some sense waking up. They are increasingly becoming a contributing factor, not only assisting in the construction process, but also in the process of design. It's in this way that our newest tools, software, are different from pencils. Software, by for example making use of genetic algorithms, can not only evolve manmade design through iteration but can now in fact develop from scratch. Any system that displays dynamic and adaptive behavior, for example systems whose behavior is driven by a neural network, can, by either playing with parameters in a predetermined design space or/and by making use of inputs received from the environment, its own outputs or the chaotic process of randomization suggest novel ideas that would not have come easily to any human mind.

You can see this trend everywhere, computers have been designing for optimum efficiency for almost 2 decades now, everything from modern day airplanes to cars and skyscrapers would be impossible to make without them. Here's just one other example that recently made the news which details how scientists built a superconductor that was designed by a computer; http://discovere.binghamton.edu/news/superconductor-3-5435.html

Although efficient design can be art, art is rarely efficient. Mostly it is concerned with the exploration of beauty which is why I am pleased to see that there too machines are making progress and are well under way to become artists in their own right. Check out http://www.thepaintingfool.com/ who lets us know that he is a computer program but also an aspiring painter who one day hopes to be taken seriously.

I am a huge fan of the godess Zaha Hadid who relentlessly reshapes the world we mortals dwell. She does this without compromise and with vision so astounding that I secretly suspect her to be a timetraveller from an era so far into the future that its culture must be unrecognizable from our own. There is simply no other explanation for the architectural wonders that she has made real. We really can't do much more but stare, mouth agape and occasionally pinch ourselves to make sure that, yes, this is the real world.

Hadid once had a reputation as unbuildable, a 'paper architect' whose projects began as vivid paintings of gravity-defying shapes exploding into the void. How did this extraordinary woman come to build the impossible? Her secret is that she embraced computers to help her design, the computers come up with suggestions of shapes so complex, so beautiful that no human being could have dreamt them up. Even standing in front of the real deal, the complexity makes it hard to really take it all in at once. They look different from every angle and there is so much going on that its practically impossible to even get the basic shape right if someone asks you to recreate it from memory. Now that materials and construction technologies have finally caught up with the future as conceived of by the combined forces of Hadid and her computers, the fun is about to begin.

Not just in architecture, but in pretty much every field you can think of. Check out Watson's novel recipes, many of which are drawing praise from experts; http://www.technologyreview.com/view/521596/the-secret-ingredient-in-computational-creativity/ - Its researchers define creativity as the ability to "generate a product that is judged to be novel and also to be appropriate, useful, or valuable by a suitably knowledgeable social group." A key factor in their work is that creativity is entirely subjective and so requires detailed feedback from human experts. “A computational creativity system has no meaning in a closed universe devoid of people,” they say.

So what does that mean for this machine which brute forces its way to developing new cancer cures? http://live.wsj.com/video/this-robot-is-changing-how-we-cure-diseases/C44DAE3D-C7FD-4C87-9E3F-685498A0C2CB.html - It might sound strange to attribute creativity to this mindless automaton but... Think about the universe, there is no mind or purpose behind the staggering amount of things it contains yet even though there is no-one behind the wheel, new things are created all the time. Is this not creativity?

“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination.” -Mark Twain


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