Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

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© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

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© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

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© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

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© AARON
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© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture (in Review)

CulturalfantasiesA massive ‘Thank You’ to everyone who attended Monday’s Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium at Cardiff University, either in person or on Twitter. I enjoyed the day (and all the papers) immensely, and feel very honoured to have been a part of it.

I’ve compiled some of the images, tweets, and Facebook posts into a (very long) Storify thread. Browse them at your leisure. Here’s how it all starts:

 This week at Cardiff University, delegates gathered from around the world for the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium. The event was an opportunity to explore the political and cultural functions of fantasy, in all its forms.

‘How might the fantastical characters and environments that populate our contemporary cultural landscape be informed by the experience of twenty-first-century metropolitan life,’ asked the event’s call for papers, ‘and how do such texts (in)form that experience in return?’ Delegates answered this question in many different ways, over two plenary talks, eight panel sessions, and numerous informal discussions throughout the day.

[read more here]

A lot of people were enthusiastic about doing this kind of thing again next year – and in fact we’ve already had a chat with a couple of delegates who might like to bring Fantasies of Contemporary Culture to their universities in the future. If we’re going to do this, however, we’d like to know what you thought of this year’s symposium.

We’ve compiled an anonymous survey of 10 questions. If you can spare the time (it should take about 2 minutes), we would love to hear your honest thoughts and points for improvement.

Thanks again – and hope to see you next year!

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture (CFP)

In addition to all the wonderful conferences I’m hoping to attend in 2016, I happen to be co-organising a symposium of my own, on the role fantasies play in the construction of contemporary reality. Whatever your background, discipline, or career phase, we want your abstracts (and we just want to meet you). Have a look at the call for papers below, and see if it sparks your fancy:

Rejected design for Cardiff Bay Opera House, which was never built. © Greg Lynn, 1995.
Rejected design for Cardiff Bay Opera House, which was never built. © Greg Lynn, 1995.

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture

Cardiff University, 23 May 2016
Call for Papers

Keynote speakers:
Dr. Mark Bould (UWE Bristol)
Dr. Catherine Butler (Cardiff University)

From the record-breaking sales of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, both in print and on film, to the phenomenal success of various forms of hyperreal ‘reality television’, contemporary Western culture seems singularly obsessed by the spectacular and the fantastic. This desire to experience other(ed) realities is also evidenced by the continued popularity of neo-historical literature and period drama, the domination of Hollywood cinema by superhero movies, and by the apocalyptic and dystopian imagery that abounds across genres and target audiences. With a long critical and cultural history, conceptualised by scholars as diverse as Tzvetan Todorov, Farah Mendlesohn, John Clute, Brian Attebery, Fredric Jameson, Lucie Armitt, and Darko Suvin, fantasy has arguably become the dominant mode of popular storytelling, supplanting the narrative realism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Rather than attempting to define fantasy, horror, weird, or science fiction as distinct genres, we wish to take up Katheryn Hume’s expansive definition of fantasy as anti-mimetic, or as ‘any departure from consensus reality’ (Fantasy and Mimesis, 1984, p. 21), in order to engage with the broader artistic motivation to question the limits of the real. This symposium, then, will explore the political and cultural functions of such fantasies. To what extent does the impulse to create fantasy art comment back upon this ‘consensus reality’, and to what extent does it represent a separate reality? How might the fantastical characters and environments that populate our contemporary cultural landscape be informed by the experience of twenty-first-century metropolitan life, and how do such texts (in)form that experience in return?

Roger Schlobin claims that the ‘key to the fantastic is how its universes work, which is sometimes where they are, but is always why and how they are’ (‘Rituals’ Footprints Ankle-Deep in Stone’, 2000, p. 161). With this claim in mind, we invite submissions from any discipline that address the relationship between current cultural, social and political dialogues and fantasy texts – specifically ones that interrogate dominant structures of power, normativity and ideology. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to, the relationship between fantasy texts and contemporary culture through the lens of:

  • Theories of fantasy
  • Ideology and world building
  • Ecological fantasies
  • Escapism
  • Cognitive mapping
  • Utopian/dystopian vision
  • Categories of monstrosity and perfection
  • The humanities (fantasies, futures)
  • Capitalist critique
  • Genre studies/border crossings
  • Age studies (childhood fantasy versus adult fantasy)
  • Gender studies
  • Alternate histories and retrofuturism
  • Postcolonial fantasy (incl. Welsh)
  • Nationalism and politics
  • Inequality and race relations

We welcome paper and panel proposals from postgraduate students, independent researchers, affiliated scholars, writers, and artists from any background or career phase. Paper proposals must be between 200-300 words; panel proposals should be between 400-500 words. Please send abstracts, including your name and e-mail, institutional affiliation (if any), and a short biography (100 words maximum), to Dr Tom Harman (HarmanTL@cardiff.ac.uk) and Megen de Bruin-Molé (DeBruinMJ@cardiff.ac.uk), using the subject line ‘CFP Fantasies of Contemporary Cultures’. The deadline for abstracts is 21 March, 2016.

The programme will include coffee/tea breaks, lunch and a wine reception. This will be covered in the registration fee (£10 for students and part-time staff, £20 for salaried staff). For additional information and updates, please consult this website, or follow us on Twitter at @cultfantasies.