Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Future of Art and Entertainment - Part 3

In my last two posts I looked at the future of entertainment technology in creating an immersive experience, the kind of art that that movement has been producing, and what it all means for us as a culture.

Today I want to talk about a different kind of technology that I see being talked about more and more - automated "art" programs or machines. At the bottom level of this totem pole is Photoshop's gallery of "paint" filters.

These are pretty nice - but the effect is very evenly distributed and, at least to me, it's still clear that it comes from a photograph. However - there are more sophistocated programs being developed lately.

Artist James Gurney wrote a recent blog post about an Image Parsing program written by Kun Zeng, Mingtian Zhao, Caiming Xiong, Song-Chun Zhu from Lotus Hill Institute and University of California, Los Angeles. The goal for the software was to interpret photographs in painterly terms.

The program "intelligently" interprets a photograph and can recognize areas of interest such as people, faces, animals, and certain objects. It paints those in detail and relegates other areas of the picture to more artistic, painterly, abstract terms. It uses as many as 700 different brushes with varying factors for each stroke, such as brush size, length of stroke, opacity, and color.

Eric Fortune on the Muddy Colors blog also recently wrote a post that I'd like to sort of channel here today. (Read the entire post here, it's worth it.) He started by posting the following video.

Gurney linked to the Vangobot video as well, and had this to say. "What does this mean for traditional painters? Should we welcome it or be worried? If [the image parsing] software is hooked up to a Vangobot, anyone could buy a really nice wedding portrait painted in oil from a decent wedding photo."

Fortune said he doesn't feel threatened by this technology in its current state - but he knows technology like this is only going to continue to improve. Gurney said the same - "Will computers ever achieve the higher level judgments, what Harding referred to as 'selection, arrangement, sentiment, and beauty?' I would be inclined to say yes, yes, yes, and yes. Computers will learn to caricature and they'll do a good job at it. They will learn to paint science fiction and fantasy, and to do Van Gogh or Picasso transformations. Anything that can be deconstructed can be programmed."

However, he goes on to say that "I do believe that there is something elusive, some element of real genius in great artists that will always stay beyond the reach of materialistic or deconstructive analysis... I can take comfort in the faith that other humans will always enjoy works that are filtered through the human consciousness and the human hand." He also says that the program is a work of art in and of itself that should be applauded, and that "The more these computers advance, the better we understand what we do as painters." All of which I agree with.

Fortune has a different take. He sees this technology changing the art industry for good, and not necessarily for the better. "[It will cost] a fraction of the cost required to hire an artist for the job.  Even if the Art Director loves you, what if the publishing company has to do what it can to cut corners and save money.  It's bad enough the field is as competitive as it is already... We're all artists here. And in order for us to make a living, other people have to buy our products and pay for our services."

Then he goes on to explain technology (in general)'s exponentially advancing rate of intelligence and automation and exponentially decreasing cost. In a phrase: automated technology is getting better across the board, in every field - transportation, medicine, scientific research, athletics, music. And at the same time, it's getting cheaper, so that it can be implemented more widely for less. This technology is destroying certain jobs, but it's also creating jobs. But, at some point, it's going to start destroying more jobs than it is creating. We can't just all leave our jobs and go be software programmers.

"We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come--namely, technological unemployment.  This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour."  ~John Maynard Keynes 

Fortune concludes by saying, "...At what point of amazingly high productivity and perhaps increasing unemployment is a major conversation going to be had about our relationship to our "jobs"[?] If automation ends up doing most of what people used to do, should we continue to force people to try and find jobs and work eight hour days and more to survive? Without jobs, who's going to buy all of the things that the robots are producing?" He cites many others who are beginning to predict that, in the future, the notion of "having a job" will become obsolete.

Arthur C. Clarke had a similar notion - "The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play."

As far as I can tell, most of the people I personally know do enjoy their jobs, at least to a degree. However, I feel like we live in a world where most people are unhappy at work and dream about doing other things with their lives. But here we arrive at a discussion of almost philosophical proportions - what should life be? If no one is working - what are they spending all of their time doing? Whatever they love? Are so many things being created "for the joy of it" that there becomes an overabundance of amateur art, novels, films? What about education? Is this a society without any form of payment? When you take money out of the equation, it changes the entire structure of our civilization.

I'll end with a story that I found on reddit a while ago which really stuck with me.

A vacationing American businessman standing on the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico watched as a small boat with just one young Mexican fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. Enjoying the warmth of the early afternoon sun, the American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish. 

"How long did it take you to catch them?" the American casually asked.
"Oh, a few hours," the Mexican fisherman replied. 
"Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" the American businessman then asked. 
The Mexican warmly replied, "With this I have more than enough to meet my family's needs."
The businessman then became serious, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, "I sleep late, play with my children, watch ball games, and take siesta with my wife. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs..." 

The American businessman impatiently interrupted, "Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, before long you can buy a second boat, then a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats." 

Proud of his own sharp thinking, he excitedly elaborated a grand scheme which could bring even bigger profits, "Then, instead of selling your catch to a middleman you'll be able to sell your fish directly to the processor, or even open your own cannery. Eventually, you could control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this tiny coastal village and move to Mexico City, or possibly even Los Angeles or New York City, where you could even further expand your enterprise."
Having never thought of such things, the Mexican fisherman asked, "But how long will all this take?"

After a rapid mental calculation, the Harvard MBA pronounced, "Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard." 

"And then what, seƱor?" asked the fisherman.
"Why," answered the businessman, "When the time is right, you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."
"Millions? Really? What would I do with it all?" asked the young fisherman in disbelief. 

"Why, that's the best part!" the businessman cried. "Then you could happily retire with all the money you've made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, watch ball games, and take siesta with your wife. You could stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want."


That's all I got. Thanks for letting me pretend I'm actually a real blogger for a few days. I'm happy to report that I have been keeping up with the daily sketches (1 month down!) and I will post them all here as soon as I can. Until then, have a great weekend.


  1. Wonderful story, Gina! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    As they say, history tends to repeat itself. When the new industrial age started approaching it's full potential, riots and revolutions broke out all over the world, which led to global wars and oceans of blood. Then everyone settled down and spent the next 40 years rebuilding everything they've been burning and destroying during the previous 40 years. Such is the result of every abrupt social and technological transition, it seems.

    I wonder if we will see it all happen again in this lifetime, once the age of full automated production reaches its peak.

    1. Dmitri - Great thoughts! I hadn't noticed that parallel... and then, right after I saw your comment, I read another Muddy Colors blog post about the same thing! A great read.

      The age of the internet is definitely akin to the industrial revolution as far as the impact it's had on society goes. I for one certainly hope no more world wars are on the way... but I'm excited to see what the future has in store.