Monday, August 19, 2013

Excerpt 6

Brewster was not the only one exploring the relationship between beauty and technology at the time. Mary Boole was fascinated by the mechanization of logic that her husband George and his colleagues were developing[1]. She did not have the opportunity to study mathematics herself (as she points out, women were not allowed to attend college in her day) but was eager to discuss these ideas and try to understand them in a larger context of aesthetics and religion.
Within the last generation we have gained a “Calculating-Engine,” a “Calculus of Logic” (with many and widespread applications), and a “Logical Abacus;” and we are fast discovering means of making the generation of the most complicated and beautiful curves as mechanical a process as Logic has become. Of what are these inventions a sign? The reasoning-machines of Babbage and Jevons, and the sympalmograph, and other inventions for illustrating the mathematical genesis of beauty, seem to me to have brought to a reductio ad absurdum the worship of intellectual power and artistic genius.[2]
As the machinery behind thought and artistic creation became understood, she thought, they would be valued less. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed a similar idea: “That arithmetic is the basest of all mental activities is proved by the fact that it is the only one that can be accomplished by a machine.”

The Harmonograph

The sympalmograph or harmonograph that Mary Boole spoke of was a device for tracing out the path of combined harmonic vibrations. The pattern of Lissajous curves it traced out was a mathematically constrained image that was widely admired for its beauty. Mary Boole was especially interested in how mathematical curves could lead to the beautiful forms of leaves or flowers, a theme taken up in our century in such books as The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants, or The Fractal Geometry of Nature.

Multiple versions were built, initially simple fragile oscillatory pendulums, later ones with careful arrangements of brass gears. Various inventors designed ones of the latter type which could render the same image twice with slightly offset phases, so that when viewed through a stereoscope rendered a 3D curve in space. Photographer Charles Bentham devised a way to create similar figures photographically with long exposures, writing:
It was generally judged that “successful” harmonograms required the lengths of the two pendulums to be in a ratio (such as 1:4). The chaotic curves which result from unturned lengths were judged to be less interesting and “out of harmony.”
The kaleidoscope and sympalmograph are examples of a particular type of a device that is intended to generate new works of art. Each one follows the same pattern:
·        Hand-selected forms to be recombined. Brewster at various points recommends buttons, bits of broken glass, a distant bonfire, dancers, coins, engravings, gems, polarized lenses, and flowers.
·        Random or nearly random input. In the kaleidoscope, this comes from shaking the bits of glass.
·        Formal constraints. The kaleidoscope uses mirrors to impose symmetry.
For example, a Markov poetry generator takes a set of words (preselected for the intended effect, such as all words used in works by a given author) recombine them randomly, but imposing constraints of use frequency patterns. Fractal generators use slightly more sophisticated symmetry constraints on the randomness. Similar examples can be found for music, such as David Cope’s EMI program.

Is the Kaleidoscope Creative?

When the kaleidoscope first appeared, it was hugely popular among all segments of society—rich and poor, old and young. Within a few years, however, the appeal had greatly diminished. We now see a kaleidoscope as a toy for young children. It is almost as if it were an infectious disease like chicken pox, a fascination that overtakes each of us the first time we are exposed, but we gradually become accustomed to. After a short time new kaleidoscope images fail to add anything new to the already formed impression. Instead of seeing individual works, our brains pick up on the underlying pattern that unites all the images formed. While at first it seemed that the kaleidoscope was being creative, it later becomes apparent that a store of creativity injected, as it were, during the creation of it has merely been allowed to leak out slowly.
Simple recombinative novelty, then, isn’t the only thing a device needs in order to seem truly creative to us.
What I would like to do in the following chapters is explore just what it is that separates human creativity from the limited kind of pseudo-creativity exhibited by the kaleidoscope. These questions are mixed in with a tour of similar devices found in many different fields throughout history.
·        How can a machine evaluate the quality of the work it produces?  Can a machine be built that in some sense understands the meaning of its own output?
·        How does the free will of the artist affect artwork and our perception of it? When an artist and a viewer perceive artwork, what kinds of processes occur in our minds, and can they be automated, even in principle?
·        What influences our perception of beauty, art, and creativity?  How can we define these in a rigorous way? Can a definition ever be provided for something that by its very nature is about discovering how to go beyond previous limits?
In the final chapter I propose a design for a machine that would incorporate a few of the more modest of these goals. Such a machine would have the ability to interpret its own products in a kind of aesthetic framework and make decisions about how to revise its output to make it more appealing.

[1] See Chapter VII for more about George Boole’s logical calculus.
[2] Mary Everest Boole, Symbolical Methods of Study,1884, p.32. Not everyone came to the same conclusion:
“That art which is above all others a cultured art—that which aims at the production of symmetrical form, and the beauty which is geometrical, of man, rather than irregular, of nature, is largely a matter of machinery. For the natural and inevitable tendency of machinery is to produce symmetry…. It seems strange that many are but now awaking to the consciousness that machine-made articles need not be ugly.
But even when men have so awakened, the degrading influence of overmuch faith in machinery makes itself felt. Who can contemplate without a shudder the Corinthian cast-iron pillars of a railway station? The common mind, when it finds that some artistic process can be performed by machinery, at once jumps to the conclusion that art itself is, or can be made, a matter of machinery. This recalls the familiar story of the organ-blower, who remarked after a beautiful voluntary, ‘Ah, what fine music we do make, to be sure.’” (The City of London school magazine 1877)
[3] Charles Bentham, “Immaterial Solids,” The Process Photogram, Vol. 12, p. 49

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