Putting some art in artificial intelligence, cheering debate points, and some helpful English history

by Rob Tiller


Sunflowers--6It’s well and truly summer in North Carolina, and plenty hot and humid.  If I have a nature photography project or want to practice golf, I try to finish up by 10:00 a.m. to avoid the full-on heat.  Back in the air conditioning, I’ve been spending more time at the computer with my photo processing software.

I made these images using my own recent photos and Topaz Impressions.  TI has numerous templates for getting started, and then you can modify the virtual brushes, brushstrokes, amount of paint, and other parameters.  Figuring out the basics for working it takes just a few minutes, though I’m sure achieving mastery takes a good deal more.



I’m not sure whether I’ll be committing long term to this kind of image making, but it’s fun to experiment with it.  It’s hard to believe that a relatively inexpensive consumer software product can persuasively reproduce artistic effects that once took years of training.  This artificial intelligence is empowering and exciting.  

There are, of course, other aspects of AI that are worrisome, including automated warfare and elimination of large swathes of human employment, along with the associated economic activity (like the ability to buy groceries).  I’ve been reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which includes a surprisingly dispassionate appraisal of the likelihood that our AI will in due course far outstrip our intellectual abilities, and the dark implications of that fundamental change.  There is, of course, a reasonable possibility that we will blow ourselves up or otherwise destroy civilization as we know it before we reach the AI tipping point, but in case we don’t, we need to be figuring out how to contain the AI risks.


I was pleased to see the issue of AI’s eliminating jobs getting attention at the Democratic presidential candidate debate this week.  Andrew Yang was really impressive in explaining in simple terms how our amazing technology is transforming our economy to produce increasing inequality.  His proposed solution of a universal basic income is sensible, though I very much doubt it will be adequate.  

I was also happy to see most of the Democratic candidates talking seriously about some of our other tough problems, including the climate crisis (global warming and environmental destruction), pervasive racism, pervasive sexism, mass incarceration, militarism and arms racing, and the corruption of a political system dominated by corporations and the super wealthy.  These issues have been festering for a long time, and addressing them won’t be easy. But they were hardly mentioned in the last presidential election cycle, or several before that. It’s encouraging that at least now they’re on the discussion agenda.  


For some perspective on living in a time of great social upheaval and numerous dire problems, I recommend Robert Morrison’s new book, The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern.  As the full title indicates, Morrison examines a small slice of the history of a small country, and finds transformational developments in the business, war, and culture.

The Regency refers to England’s government between 1811 and 1820.  It was still early in the industrial revolution, which produced both great wealth and massive social dislocations.  Inequality was extreme, with wealth and political power highly concentrated, and the poor in dire straits. Crime was rampant.  The Luddites were destroying factories, while Napoleon seemed to be taking over Europe.

Then Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and the British imperial project took off.  There were new fashions (Dandyism), sports, and broadening sexual mores, with venereal diseases running rife. It was a time of remarkable achievements in science (Babbage, Davy, and Faraday), engineering (Telford), social reform (Frye and Owen), literature (Keats, Shelley, and Byron), and painting (Constable and Turner). 

Perhaps the most influential writer from that time for our time was Jane Austen.  As Morrison notes, her great novels (such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma) treat issues of romance and domesticity in a way that barely suggests the numerous intellectual and social revolutions that surrounded her.  She was in many ways conservative. Yet she called into question traditional assumptions about the role of women and the larger social order. At the same time, she distilled, with insight, elegance, and humor, timeless truths about human emotions and relations.  

Looking through Morrison’s lens reminded me of what history at its best can do.  What we see in the past depends on where we look and how carefully, and what we know and care about at a given moment.  That is, history changes over time as we (as societies and as individuals) change. It is never a completed project, because the knowledge we bring to research is always a work in progress, and in any case, we can never know everything.  But when we carefully examine the past with good faith, we can better understand both the past and the present.  


Keeping in focus both the vast sweep of the industrial revolution and Austen’s brilliant tiny dramas is tricky.  But we have just that kind of problem every day. How much energy should we spend addressing our climate catastrophe and other huge problems, and how much about the completely personal, like improving a golf shot or piece of music or having a pleasant Saturday night dinner with friends?  Of course, we need to do both, and do.   

I had a piano lesson last week with the fabulous Dr. Olga Kleiankina, and was again reminded of the big commitment great music requires.  When I lamented my struggles to get control of Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, she pointed out that it would take a professional concert pianist months to prepare the piece for performance.  And of course, I’m not looking to play at Carnegie Hall. I’m just hoping to understand the music better, enjoy it more, and give some healthy musical nourishment to myself and interested friends.  


But even achieving that takes sustained commitment, which means certain other worthwhile endeavors will not get done.  I occasionally ask myself whether using a meaningful portion of my finite life energy on music is the sanest, most responsible choice.  Though without it, I’d probably be somewhat less sane and happy.  

Anyhow, I am completely unconflicted about one new project:  learning to cook with a slow cooker. With encouragement from Jocelyn, I bought a Crock Pot a few weeks ago, and have been improving my slicing and spicing skills.  Yesterday I made a vegetarian coconut quinoa curry, which simmered for 7 hours. Sally pronounced it delicious! And though I did a lot of cubing of veggies, I managed not to cut myself!Sunflowers--5.jpg