Influencing the Space: If AI could meet Buddha
Peter Saul, one of my painting teachers at UT Austin, said that he was a boring suburban middle class family man… and posed the question of how to stay fascinating, or stay fascinated with one’s work. At the time I thought my life was fascinating enough, so I could simply make art and it would be enough. That was back when I was living a dangerous adventure, with big unknowns. Imagine what it’s like to choose the path of an artist, and to have nobody care who you are, and to not know if you have anything worthwhile to share.
There may be hidden treasure for AI (artificial intelligence) if researchers dive into the creative process. For now, big money wants AI to sift through massive data to better understand consumers to better manipulate and sell products. Cost effective answers to quick questions take priority, but this will hit a wall, because machines have not been taught to think. At some point big money will be forced to ask really big questions like “what is thinking?”.
Enter the Artist and Buddhist
John Baldessari’s irreverent work “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” is an open ended question, one that allows for possibilities. The Tibetan Buddhists have an ability to linger in this neither here nor there moment, called liminal space. An other one of my teachers, the great Shamar Rinpoche felt comfortable letting things remain open and unanswered, having the luxury to gather information and wait until the last moment to make a decision… or not. He was embroiled in Indian court battles, and had a splitting lineage to piece together, but saw it as a passing dream. Complexity theory and the study of animal behavior in groups, tells us sometimes making no decision at all is the best decision. For example, a school of fish hanging out in a coral reef with no decision about when to forage for food may be the safest protocol. Until further notice.
So at this moment of giving up, this moment of liminal space – that is the moment the artist wishes to capitalize. I know this sounds silly, but have you ever looked at a work of art and said to yourself, “how did they do that, what is it made of?” And rather than shift your position to look closer, get a better angle or figure it out, you just let it be magic? Neither here nor there. And how long can you let it be magic for? The point when we acknowledge our personal and perceptual limitations, with awareness there is a chance to open up to space. The moment, the materials, the thing happening in space, is so much greater than figuring it out so you can get on to the next thing. It is our birthright. The great meditation masters can hang on this space in the battle field. The novice may have a glimpse during meditation. The artist may attempt to practice in a rarified environment called “studio”.
Back to AI
Some 2550 odd years ago, the historical Buddha taught that any science that proves his words wrong should be followed instead. I will not go into the myriad ways in which Buddhism and science agree, but I do want to bring up a divergence. The Buddha taught the brain is more like a radio than it is a radio tower. It’s a receiver not a producer. Just as a young
child is mistaken in thinking the TV has inside it a tiny stage with actors performing, our great misconception is that the brain, through more and more subtle distilling of matter, makes the leap from synapses firing to production of thought. For now our culture assumes the Buddha was wrong, but wouldn’t mind producing brain, fit better with contemporary physics?
I have heard both/and answers to the question, “could a mind be reborn in a robot?” Yes and no. Depending on how the question is asked and who is answering. The AI topic is beyond my pay grade, so I’ll simply restate what I recently heard Melanie Mitchell of Santa Fe Institute say in a podcast interview. In order for AI to really think for itself, not simply replicate thought, it will need a “body”. As we first put our fingers in our mouths, and hear the beating heart of our mother in utero, we piece together what will later be abstract thoughts. Though industries that want to see results with their money won’t want to finance a robot that drools for a few years, it may in fact be a requirement. Asking little questions like, how can we cull data from billions of people and turn that into a profit only yields little answers… Asking big questions like, “what is mind?” yields great crops… in the form of infinite universes and constellations. The drooling baby Buddha.
Back to Peter Saul
Perhaps humans, like institutions go through phases of radical regeneration (avant-garde) and institutional settling and back-log (kitsch). As our lives become commonplace we either need a shock from outside, or a wake-up call from within. The contemplation of mortality is an obvious choice, and perhaps a silver lining with our current situation (covid-19). Though unpleasant, the process of innovation and creativity are the pains necessary for growth. The first steps of a new series or artistic project is both a mourning process and requires a surge of momentum. This process is the slow motion, blow by blow play of a single thought, drawn out into real time. Saul didn’t just give me a problem to solve. He gave me clues… especially through his paintings. They are radical in content, but their surface and sheen is orderly and consistent. They are quite lovely to look at from the vantage point of plasticity, paint on canvas, and yet wildly humorous and subversive in content.
If AI doesn’t learn to stick its fingers in its mouth, or fart or play a practical joke, it also won’t be able to come up with an original idea, or get to the level of our science fiction wishes (and nightmares).