My posts at Christmas time in the past have often been pictures of snowy scenes or Christmas trees. This year I have gone for something different. The image above is an abstract painting by Zahrah Resh. I have used extracts from it as thumbnails in four posts over the last three months and so I thought it was about time to show you the whole painting. Zahrah Resh is a contemporary American abstract artist based in East Lansing, Michigan who has exhibited at the ArtPrize which takes place over 19 days in Grand Rapids, Michigan attracting around half a million visitors. ArtPrize started in 2009 and offered the world’s largest art prize of $250,000. We got to know Zahrah when we lived nearby in Okemos, Michigan and we brought a number of her paintings back to England when we moved to Liverpool nearly a decade ago. They remind me of the people we met and knew during our time in Michigan. Best wishes for happiness, joy and peace this holiday.
I suspect that artificial intelligence is somewhere near the top of the ‘Hype Curve’ [see ‘Hype cycle’ on September 23rd, 2015]. At the beginning of the year, I read Max Tegmark’s book, ‘Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence’ in which he discusses the prospects for artificial general intelligence and its likely impact on life for humans. Artificial intelligence means non-biological intelligence and artificial general intelligence is the ability to accomplish any cognitive task at least as well as humans. Predictions vary about when we might develop artificial general intelligence but developments in machine learning and robotics have energised people in both science and the arts. Machine learning consists of algorithms that use training data to build a mathematical model and make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed for the task. Three of the books that I read while on vacation last month featured or discussed artificial intelligence which stimulated my opening remark about its position on the hype curve. Jeanette Winterson in her novel, ‘Frankissstein‘ foresees a world in which humanoid robots can be bought by mail order; while Ian McEwan in his novel, ‘Machines Like Me‘, goes back to the early 1980s and describes a world in which robots with a level of consciousness close to or equal to humans are just being introduced to the market the place. However, John Kay and Mervyn King in their recently published book, ‘Radical Uncertainty – decision-making beyond numbers‘, suggest that artificial intelligence will only ever enhance rather replace human intelligence because it will not be able to handle non-stationary ill-defined problems, i.e. problems for which there no objectively correct solution and that change with time. I think I am with Kay & King and that we will shortly slide down into the trough of the hype curve before we start to see the true potential of artificial general intelligence implemented in robots.
Shortly before the pandemic started to have an impact in the UK, I went to our local second-hand bookshop and bought a pile of old paperbacks to read. One of them was ‘Daisy Miller and Other Stories’ by Henry James (published in 1983 as Penguin Modern Classic). The title of this post is a quote from one of the ‘other stories’, ‘The Lesson of the Master’, which was first published in 1888. ‘Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune’ is said by the successful fictional novelist, Henry St George as words of encouragement to the young novelist Paul Ovett. It struck a chord with me because I think it sums up academic life. Success in teaching is to inspire a new level of insight and way of thinking amongst our students; while, success in research is to change the way in which society, or at least a section of it, thinks or operates, i.e. to have made people wriggle to another tune.
Recently, I visited a local artist to choose a painting for a birthday present. He showed me a pair of small oil paintings in which I had expressed an interest via photographs he had sent me by email. I agreed to buy both of them and then we drifted into his studio where he showed me the pieces he was working on. There were many unfinished paintings and he described how difficult it was to finish some of them. He measured the time taken on some of them in months and, for a few, in years. I was struck by the similarity with scientists who indulge in slow-motion multi-tasking and switch between research projects in different fields, often leaving something unfinished to focus on something else and then returning to pursue the original research topic [‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leading to productive research‘ on September 19th, 2018]. I suspect both artists and scientists who indulge this approach are looking to achieve ‘a perfect balance of their conscious and unconscious life’ out of which Barbara Hepworth believed ideas are born and realized [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016].