But is it art? The tricky question of whether
computers can be artists
Can computers, perhaps in the guise of a future artificial intelligence, be
creative? Can they create something whereby many people agree that the result is
The first question here is 'What is art?' Is it about the result, created by
whatever means? Is it about the customer, the user, the observer? Do people have
to agree something is art before we can agree that it is art? Or is it about the
artist, and the process of creative thinking? And if so, does this preclude
computers from ever being creative? To plunder an over-used metaphor, can there
be creativity in the forest when nobody is there?
A simple definition of art (though not the only one) is of something that
deliberately stimulates. This allows for art in music, cooking and other areas.
It also allows for varying pleasure. While creating widespread pleasure can be
profitable, others may scorn such populism and delight in anguished expression.
Stimulation may be gained through representation, which can range from a simple
photograph (where machines have long played a part) to a clever sculpture made
with scrap-yard parts. Even in more abstract representation, if rules can be
defined, then machines may create.
An extension of the question of stimulation which resonates with this site is
that art changes minds. Through its provocation, it makes people think
differently and maybe become different people. In such ways, art can changes
A key aspect is emotion. Art stimulates feelings as reactions to a creation.
This is more difficult for machines, but not impossible. While provoking some
feeling is quite feasible (we are emoting creatures, after all), gaining the awe
and wonder great art may be a more difficult challenge.
A further consideration is in the balance of familiarity and surprise.
Representation, even in abstract terms, needs something familiar. From this
base, corruption and unexpected variation grabs attention, and the art of the
artist is in knowing the line between pleasure and irritation that this creates.
This task is far harder for machines and is a boundary that will be hard to
Jack Tait is a retired
photography lecturer who builds simple machines that draw, using a careful
combination of determinism and randomisation. It uses pens, driven by various
motors, gears and cams. Not all drawings are good art, but he is making progress
in improving the good-to-bad ratio.
There are many examples of computers doing incredible things. Perhaps one of
the most astonishing of late is the story of the Go-playing supercomputer. In
2016, Google's AlphaGo Lee
beat Lee Sedol, 9th Dan master, at a game that is reputed to be the greatest
intellectual challenge. It did so by analyzing many, many previous games, giving
it more options at its super-natural fingers. But then, only a year later,
AlphaGo Zero soundly beat its predecessor with only knowledge of the basic rules
of the game. Observers of the games were confused by the unorthodox moves the
computer made, but were later convinced of the genius when these proved very
Even given all this seems unlikely that computers will create great art any
time soon, especially given the emotional sensitivity required. Yet it may come,
alongside great empathy when this is cracked. When your computer understand you
better than anyone, when you prefer its company and laugh uproariously at its
hilarious new jokes, then maybe, only then, will it creates you amazing artworks
in its spare time.
The years spin by: the psychology of time
perception and how our priorities change
Well that's it. 2017 done and dusted. Good stuff and bad stuff, as most
years, and whether we see it as one or the other has more to do with our
attitude than what actually happened. Because how we experience life and
especially how we remember it is what makes our lives pleasant or not. Another
common perception that is much remarked upon at this time of year is how fast
time flies by. Life is like driving down a road with your foot hard down on the
accelerator. Things go by faster and faster until one day, a wall pops up in
front of you and that's the end of your journey. Sometimes we see the wall from
a way off and sometimes it appears so quickly it is all over in a moment.
How we perceive time is kind of funny. We classically have five senses:
sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We also know that there are four things
in the universe: space, time, energy and matter. We can detect space, energy and
matter with our senses, but what about time? We can't see, hear, taste, smell or
touch it. So how do we perceive it? The answer is that it is a mental
construction. We imagine it as an explanation for changing experience. Time
flies when we're having fun and drags when we are bored.
So why do older people in particular complain about the speedy passage of
time? One way we assess time is by comparing the time we have spend in our lives
with the time we have left to live. For children, their future lives stretch
infinitely outwards, while older people know that most of their lives are done
and the wall could pop up any time now. This happens too to the terminally ill,
who strive to make the best of the limited time left they have. If you were told
you had only a month to live, what would you do? Probably something different to
what you have planned (if anything) for the coming 30 days.
What is important for us changes as time goes by. When we are young, having
fun is often the most important. If we are lucky, we will enjoy learning, as
this pays most back in future years, though another tricky factor gets us here:
the areas of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain where we imagine the future
does not develop fully until we are in our early twenties. In middle age, time
floats by as we are often too busy getting on with our lives with jobs,
relationships, families and children. Then children leave and jobs end and our
remaining years stretch out before us, fading away into a worryingly near term.
In that autumn period if we are lucky enough to be self-sufficient, we may seek
to do those things we could not afford or had no time for earlier in our lives.
We take up new hobbies. We travel and see the world. We reconnect with old
friends and make new ones. Or maybe we stare into the approaching headlights
like frightened rabbits.
And so, as we stand on the brink of 2018, what will your priorities be for
the year? Are you looking ahead? Imagine you are standing here a year hence,
looking back. What do you want to say you have achieved? Because now is the time
to look forward to the real differences you want to make. And there is one thing
that you must do in order to get it: think differently. If you think how you
always thought, you will get what you always got. Is that enough? No? So think
again. Change your attitude, change your future.
Are we sleepwalking back to an age of feudal,
For many, many years, mankind lived by what we sometimes call 'The rule of
the jungle', in which might is right and those who ruled did so strength. Up
until recent centuries, kings had absolute power, as did every person of
position within in a strict hierarchy. Even in families, children were 'to be
seen and not heard' and women often had an inferior role.
Such power structures tend to be brutish, with harsh punishment for minor
infractions, meted out with little real justice, other than that chosen by the
person in charge. Positions of power at any level was often gained by what we
would today consider as corrupt means, including bribery, blackmail and
bullying. This gave rise to 'leaders' who managed by fear and who could be
wantonly cruel at will. While some today might wish for simpler times of past
ages, they would probably be horrified by the accepted practices of the day.
Along the way, often through revolution, democracy emerged as a means for the
people at the bottom of the tree to control the people at the top. Now, through
this distributed power, they could vote in representatives who would truly
represent broad social interests and look after weaker members of society.
A problem with democracy is that it is not always wise. Like any system of
trust it is open to deception and there are many who can be deceived. For those
in power, feudalism can be an attractive system to not only keep their power but
also to pass it on to their family and friends.
The internet came along with such promise of openness. When everyone could
know everything about everyone, universal social trust seemed inevitable. Yet
when those who sought to shape opinion got hold of this tool, the tail started
to wag the dog. Activists who used it in repressive regimes suddenly found that
the tables were turned as the authorities followed the links back to source.
Then with troll farms, clickbait and deceptive tweeting, the internet turned
from a tool for freedom to a means of propaganda and social control.
Where will it all end? Democracy, which reached a high water point at the
turn of the millennium, seems to be fading in influence. Authoritarian rulers
are on the rise through the world, even in countries that elect their leaders,
and even again in the heart of the Western world. In particular, the far-right
seems to be grabbing more control and working to change the system so they stay
in power. Dictatorships easily arise out of democracies when the population vote
for empty promises and grand, nationalist speeches. It can seem unthinkable, but
history, notably in the last 100 years, is littered with instances of unwise
voting leading to appalling autocracies.
It's not about whether we get a left or right government. More, it's about
protecting our fragile democracies. The only way that we will avoid returning to
feudal times is if people listen, think, organize and most importantly, get out and vote.
Negotiating chaos and lost trust: the price
of bluff and bravado
In the recent Brexit negotiations, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May made yet
another negotiating error that further weakened the British position in their
bid to wiggle our of the European Union. All ready for a triumphant announcement
of agreement about Northern Ireland, her parliamentary partners, the
ultra-conservative DUP, scuppered her compromise agreement with the EU and
Ireland about borders.
How things have changed. Back in May, she was talking tough about 'No deal is
better than a bad deal' and her party was scoffing at EU demands for a massive
divorce payoff. ’They need us more than we need them' was a common cry. Yet now
we are offering tens of billions and conceding at every turn.
So what's up? What should we have done differently?
The first step should have been to understand realities, instead of the 'have
your cake and eat it' echo chamber ideals of the hard Brexit advocates. We
should have realized their experience of hundreds of years of British conquest
and arrogance, and the long desire for revenge. We should also have realized
their fear that conceding to UK demands would encourage other doubters. Even
then, the temptation to 'divide and conquer' by approaching individual countries
(a classic negotiation tactic) was not a good move (ministers tried it) as this
just soured the relationship further.
The next step should have been to show respect and empathy towards the
Europeans, not disdain. We should have listened and demonstrated concern. We
should also have understood the real impact on us and prepared detailed plans
for how to handle disagreement. We should have been organized and not shown our
internal divisions. The list goes on.
I feel really sorry for Theresa May, trying to stitch together all the
different interests and emotions. Even if she cobbles together some deal, she
has lost the respect of many, including the electorate. So too has her
Enough. What are the lessons for the rest of us?
First, never get arrogant nor underestimate your negotiating partners (and
don't think of them as purely opponents -- it a joint process to find optimum
benefit for both). Remember also the partners on your own side of the line. The
DUP were not sufficiently engaged and the result was last-minute collapse.
Then get your data and facts straight. During the 2016 referendum, Minister
Michael Gove said that we had had enough of experts. On the contrary, listen to
your experts carefully.
Listen to your partners, too. Research their situation. Understand their deep
interests. Build trust, not anger. With this, help them understand you.
Then talk process. How should you proceed? Agree how to agree. The EU
blindsided the UK earlier in the year by demanding agreement on a huge divorce
bill before moving to the trade talks that the UK desperately wanted.
And manage time. The UK government have had a year and a half so far and are
still disorganized. They set the two-year clock ticking last Spring without a
plan nor a clear organization, which they made worse with a disastrous election
(again, failing to change minds).
Negotiation is a serious business, especially when there are big stakes and
many interests. It takes time and planning. Political bluster is no substitute.
All we can do now is watch and learn from this masterclass in failure. And
determine not to fall down such rabbit holes ourselves.
Subtle headlines and deeper psychology:
language used in reporting of the retweet scandal
Donald Trump has expertly grabbed the headlines again, this time retweeting
old videos posted by a small, far-right group in the UK. Unlike many others, who
strongly criticized the president, Prime Minister Theresa May rather weakly just said
it was 'wrong'.
Rather than go into the sordid wrongness and international damage of such
leading Republican Paul Ryan seems appalled), let's look at how the major UK
newspapers reported this, on Thursday, 30 November, 2017. In particular, it is
interesting to look at the subtle effects of different wording.
The Telegraph: May attacks far-Right Trump tweets
The Times: May criticises Trump over far-right video tweets
The Guardian: May condemns Trump's far-right retweets
The Financial Times: Trump rebuked by Downing Street for retweeting posts by UK
First, look at the main verb. The Telegraph is a conservative newspaper,
which is perhaps surprising as this is the most aggressive wording, with the
language of war in 'attack'. The Times is more clinical, using 'criticises'. The
Guardian uses the language of a judge condemning a prisoner, framing May in a morally superior role. The FT
also places May in a superior position, but
now as a parent rebuking a child.
As well as war language, the Telegraph has an embedded indictment of
'far-Right Trump'. This seems unlikely to be editorial accident as it aligns
Trump with the extreme racists he retweets. Interesting also is the capitalized
'Right' (unlike other headlines), giving this extra significance as a proper noun.
The Guardian has the shortest headline. Brief headlines can add punch, while
longer headlines, like the Financial Times, engages you for longer, giving more
time for the message to sink in.
Three papers name the prime minister as 'May'. Using just the surname can be
more depersonalizing and pejorative (this insult is frequently used for
'Trump'), although depending on context it can also lend authority (which seems
the case here). The Financial Times interestingly uses the indirect
'Downing Street', in the same way that 'The White House's may be used, sending a
signal that this is a criticism from the whole UK Government, and not just
Headline writers know what they are saying, including from these serious
broadsheets (the tabloids were more interested in local gossip). This analysis
will not be a surprise to them. It is useful for the rest of is to watch the
detail of language used and wonder about the subtle intent behind the words.
The illusion of confidence and the road to
Confidence is a watchword of our day. We learn at home, school, work and with
friends that confidence is cool and cool is confidence. It is considered an
attractive attribute and a basic essential for success in life.
But what exactly is it? You can't put it in a bag and you can't buy it. One
way to understand it is that it is the opposite of self-doubt, awkwardness and
not knowing what to do. Often, a lack of confidence is based on a fear of
criticism by others. Conversely, confidence implies being sure of one's own
ability and being less vulnerable to social manipulation.
A problem with confidence is that it easily assumes certainty, stability and
detailed knowledge which leads to a state of wilful blindness or blissful
ignorance whereby that which is not known is not needed.
And it works. Better than self doubt, at least. It activates you, getting you
to at least try when you might otherwise be paralyzed by fear. Confidence also
reduces doubt in others as they mistake certainty for knowledge or competence.
It is not surprising that it is considered an important skill for leaders.
Yet fake confidence cloaks doubt, which can stubbornly cling on as we project
confidence while hiding our uncertainty. But this can cause unbearable inner
tension that needs an escape. We want to be confident. We act confident, but
doubt. And eventually our minds concede and believe our own propaganda. In this
way, we gain real confidence that is not justified.
Overconfidence means ignoring risk. Pride goes before a fall and failure may
be denied even as that walls crumble. But what then? If it can't be me, it must
be others or external factors. To sustain confidence, we excuse ourselves and
Confidence does not give space for learning. Or does it?
It seems that doubt is bad, unhelpful and unhealthy. And it can be. Yet it
can be healthy too. Healthy doubt does not undermine confidence. Indeed, it
makes a great, if paradoxical, partner. It adds realism, humility, and a pause
that gives time to consider alternatives.
To be properly confident means taking time to acquire knowledge and skills.
It means a long apprenticeship that leads to real mastery. Even then, real
confidence means being realistic about failure, indulging in neither excessive
doubt nor prideful certainty. What mastery gives is the confidence to cope with
variation, surprise and even failure. When you know from experience you can
handle whatever happens, you can then be truly confident.
Reconnecting: a natural response to
A relative recently became more friendly they have been in the past and I
wondered what was up. Did they want something from us? No, didn't seem so.
Notable, perhaps, was that they had been unwell a couple of times. Hmm. This
could be a case of hedging ones bets in case of future need.
Being sick, suffering losses or otherwise experiencing problems, makes us
feel vulnerable. And, while we may not like to impose on others, it can make us
realize that we may have to in the future if things become more problematic. A
natural response to this is to re-evaluate our relationships, thinking about who
are our 'real' friends and who we could depend on in an emergency. A result of
this thinking is that we turn down attention to more frivolous friends that,
while fun, are less likely to help out when we are in need, and turn up the time
spent with those who seem likely to be more empathetic and who would offer
Reviewing relationships is a good idea for many of us in any case. You don't
have to wait until you are vulnerable before standing back and taking stock. It
doesn't mean ditching all your fun friends, but you might want to wonder who
would step up if you fell down. This is not necessarily an easy task. My
daughter has been through many ups and downs and has been surprised by who
turned out to be fair weather friends and who really cared about her.
Life is a game of give and take, though some take more than they give.
Figuring out this balance in people is a useful skill. If you are feeling really
brave, it can be a challenging task to look in the mirror and ask: Am I giving
as much as I am taking? Pragmatically, you also need to ask if you are giving to
the right people, because if you are giving only to takers, when you need to
take, there may be nobody to give.
The madness of Brexit and blind, belief-based
I was listening to a podcast recently by a reporter who was covering the UK's
Conservative party conference. She noticed there a particularly alarming
attitude towards 'Brexit', the exit of Britain from the European Union. The
Conservatives used to focus first on the economy, but now they seem to have
developed a mad obsession with Brexit. And not just a negotiated, gradual exit
but the 'hard Brexit' where we leave completely, overnight. And not even just
that, but we should be putting up two fingers as we leave.
The chaos that this would cause may delight the ultra-right and survivalists
who can grab power or hunker down, but it would be disastrous for the vast
majority. As the borders slam shut, yes, excess immigration would be addressed
at a stroke. But so also would other imports be halted, resulting in empty
supermarket shelves and long queues for fuel. And this would just be the start.
Europe also would be seriously affected as British funding dries up and trade
tanks. Yet there is also a madness there, as they refuse to progress talks until
a massive 'divorce bill' is agreed. It probably doesn't help that we have a long
history of conflict with them.
Further out, this extreme, polarized, intolerant approach is appearing
elsewhere. Even within terrorist groups, it is not whether you believe, but how
ardently and blindly you believe, even to the ultimate madness of
What causes this madness? How do people get so fixated on one issue? How can
suicide seem so attractive?
A. starter is discontent. A person is unhappy about something in their lives.
They may lack purpose. They may have difficulty reaching their goals. Whatever
it is, they are unhappy.
The next step is simplification and blame. They reduce the problem to simple
issues, then blame others for this. Very quickly, this becomes an us-and-them
polarization. They get together with like-minded people and create amplifying
echo chambers of agreement.
After this comes organization and status, which means social games come into
play. Within this group, status comes from holier-than-thou purity, of who
follows the ideals more closely. Which means more extreme simplification and
blame. And to gain the ultimate status position of hero, it means turning
extreme views into extreme action.
And so we stand on the brink. Perhaps we will jump. Perhaps we will wake up
and step back. These days, there are no guarantees.
Poundland Boris, Trumpelthinskin and the
corrupting fascination with narcissists
You can hardly look at the news these days without seeing reports of the
latest faux pas of those in power. Two in particular come to mind. In the USA,
Donald Trump has been expertly vacuuming up air time and column inches for over
a year now with his attention-gathering tweets and alarming statements. Here in
the UK, our own cunning buffoon is Boris Johnson, recently and scurrilously
described as a 'Poundland Trump'. The insult is that Poundland is a low-cost
store and infers that Boris' attentional efforts, while somewhat effective, are
not in the same league as Trump.
Both reflect an alarming modern pattern where narcissistic people gain the
public eye and somehow seem to get wide approval for doing things that you or I
might get thrown in jail for doing. It's a bit like that cool kid in school who
could get away with things that would get lesser kids into deep trouble. We
wanted to be like that kid but didn't dare be that bold, so instead we extended
our identity to encompass them, vicariously enjoying their chutzpah. The
underlying dynamic for the narcissist is about power. Powerful people
deliberately break rules to demonstrate and strengthen their grip on control.
The narcissistic lock is that power feels good as the resultant attention boosts
their sense of identity.
Is this what we want? To be ruled by blatant rule-breakers? It can seem
attractive, that those in charge can cut through all the red tape and get things
done. The trouble comes, however, when power corrupts or when the
already-corrupt seek power by dishonest means.
When the corrupt and selfish are in charge are they going to act for the
greater good? Only if they have to, and then in a minimal, lip-service manner.
They may indeed make grand promises, but the reality will be delay and dilution.
For every good they do, they will take far more. They may set up apparently
social systems and generous laws, but they may also make these deeply
corruptible, filled with the loopholes that lawyers love. Perhaps worst of all,
they weaken and dismantle the institutions that make the nation great,
especially where thinkers can see what they are doing and call them out.
In this way, we may allow democracy fall into autocracy, where rulers become
untouchable as they bend the rules to enrich and protect themselves. We also
must accept our part in this. If we become fooled or corrupted by their
promises, if we put fascinating narcissists into power so we can goggle at their
antics, if we place our hopes in those who are so patently in it for themselves,
we may enjoy the ride but will be ultimately and bitterly disappointed.
A free and honest media. A fair and independent judiciary. A challenging
education system that teaches us to think. These are signs of a great nation,
not braggodocio and bullying. It is also why the discipline of voting is so
critical. It is said that we get the government we deserve. One vote seems a
drop in the ocean, but it is so critical that each of us listens, thinks and
votes for the people who make sense, not for those who promise and lie.
Elitism, literature and identity: how we all
like to feel special
Elitism is a common cry these days as we point collective fingers at the
super-rich fat-cats. That 1%, or maybe 0.001%, are ruining the world with their
ostentatious greed, we say. They have so much, why don't they give it away? But
hang on -- many of the pointers are themselves so much better off than millions,
perhaps billions, of others. Who should be casting the first stone here?
The root cause here is not money, nor envy, though these have a part to play.
Digging deeper, a key way we construct our sense of identity and self-respect is
by comparing ourselves with others. We like to be better, somehow, and though
money is a handy metric, it is not the only way.
In fact if we narrow our scope enough, most of us can find something where we
are better than others. This is a reason why we take pride in our jobs, so even
a plumber can feel good as they point out how they are paid to know just where
to tap the pipe (which, by inference, their hapless customers do not know). Even
though plumbers may jostle for superiority amongst themselves, they all know
that any one of them is better than any householder.
Like plumbers and bankers, we associate with named groups so we can borrow
their status and collective power
All this came out of a conversation with my wife about literature, and
whether authors like Terry Pratchett's and J K Rowling will be considered great
authors in the future. This question depends on those who decide on greatness,
which is not necessarily connected to book sales. This group of academics and
critics, who hand out prizes, teach students and write reviews, form a literary
elite, whose views are respected by the media and who enjoy the power this gives
them, even as on-the-ground English teachers like my wife consider them arrogant
idiots. Her identity is bound up in teaching expertise and I'm careful not to
gainsay her on matters of literature (like she does for me on matters of
psychology and science).
In changing minds, this offers a useful approach. When you want people to
feel good and like you, flatter them by praising their ability in some subject
that seems important to them, but which is not significant for the matter at
hand. Then claim your own superiority in a small but critical point. Basking in
the warmth of your elevating them to elitehood, they may more easily cede the
point and so let you convince them.
For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or
the Blogs by subject. To comment on
any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.