A Philosophical and Artistic Perspective on DALL·E2 | by Ido Leshem | Jul, 2023

Ido: Yaron, would you mind sharing your thoughts on DALL·E2? Do you believe this algorithm can, in certain ways, not only mimic but also display human abilities?

It’s not entirely clear to me that the algorithm authentically replicates human capacities. For instance, humans can automatically create art, but the key question is whether the art has aesthetic value. Criteria can be devised to determine whether or not an artwork has such merit. One criterion, I feel, is how sensitive an artwork is to context.

We exist in a certain culture, period, space, and civilization. We can easily discern contrasts between different cultures. For instance, if a Mozart piece was presented in the 12th century or the 21st, its aesthetic value could vary significantly because it is innately tied to the context in which it was produced since it is inherently linked to the context in which it was created.

Creativity, Meaning and Context

Ido: Creativity is about meaning and how humans perceive it. So how should an artist’s creation be interpreted and assessed?

Yaron: Technology can replicate Van Gogh’s style, but we should question ourselves whether the art we create using DALL·E2 offers something novel or if it’s merely a derivative of existing work. If you have the technological resources to flawlessly replicate Van Gogh’s artistic style, it doesn’t inherently imply that the created piece is art. It merely exhibits impressive imitation capabilities.

One possible approach to understand DALL·E2 is using the concept of ‘Literal Meaning’. Humans have the ability to discern whether a language use is correct, even if it hasn’t been explicitly defined or its conditions of truth explicitly outlined. John Searle, an American philosopher who is widely known for his contributions to the philosophy of language, contests the notion of ‘Literal Meaning’ (which is basically a straightforward and direct interpretation of a sentence, without any figurative or metaphorical elements).

The concept of meaning is intrinsically linked to..well, context. The issue at hand is whether it’s possible to provide a description including the necessary and sufficient conditions for a certain term to apply to a worldly object. Furthermore, whether our comprehension of the definition (or a computer’s comprehension for that matter) will be precise enough to correctly apply or use the term in a conversational context we’ve neither contemplated nor encountered before.

We understand a sentence despite our vocabulary and the extent to which we’ve used the term being finite. The instances of using the term based on memory are definitive and limited. Now, an example that illustrates this involves the definition of the concept ‘on’ in the article titled ‘Literal Meaning.’ Let’s consider a phrase we’d like to understand — “the cat is on the carpet,” or “the cat is on the floor.”

Is there a way to accurately deduce the semantically necessary and sufficient conditions for appropriately associating these terms with a cat and a rug in order to describe such a situation? To affirm that a cat is on a carpet, what fraction of it must be on the carpet? How are we defining that portion? One leg? Three legs? And what if it’s two legs on and two off the carpet?

Can we precisely determine when it would be correct to say the cat is on the carpet? Let’s illustrate further. Imagine flying in space where you see a cat and rug positioned upside down. The cat appears inverted, but who’s on what? Realize how we’ve used the term ‘on’ with the presumption of a background — Earth’s gravity. This unconscious usage merely exemplifies how much context underlies our statements and our comprehension of statements and terms. Our declarations always presuppose a background that is never explicitly stated or fully fleshed out.

Image generated by Dalle2

To be more precise about the background, consider another scenario where you travel to the United States. You are hungry in the desert so you stop at a diner and order a coke and a hamburger. Suddenly, you’re given a 5-meter hamburger and a 2-meter glass of coke. Is this what you ordered? Probably no, but how did you specify this in your order? Anyone who understands the context — “what it means to buy a hamburger” — knows that this is not what you ordered. And this context obviously varies across cultures.

You might claim that it’s not what you ordered, but countless possible situations cannot be adequately described. We always understand within context.

Image generated by Dalle2

Human vs algorithm creativity

Ido: What is your view on Human vs algorithm creativity

Yaron: Connecting this discussion to creativity — human creativity manifests itself in the ability to comprehend a creative use of a term that lacks a specified particular definition. Yet, anyone with proficiency in that language will either agree that the new application is correct or they will dismiss the application. Still, there will be a few who dissent regardless. Nothing here is precisely defined and such precision would require significantly richer logical systems to make it clear.

My primary assertion is that we should always probe individuals who believe that they’ve discovered an algorithm, especially one related to art: Did they merely produce an algorithm that successfully imitates a style or work developed long before the algorithm was conceived? We can only answer this question if we showcase a computer that can produce a novel movement in art, or write a new book.

Picasso, an exceptional figurative artist, commonly taught this style before exploring others. Art is layered historically, demanding an understanding of its roots and foundations. When a computer succeeds in initiating a new movement in art — that is, when critics or experts exclaim, “Wow! We have never witnessed anything like this before” — and if this movement genuinely hails from understanding the historical state of art, integrates aptly, and initiates a change, then that is significant. When that happens, and it successfully crafts poetry that redefines how poetry itself is understood, as Borges stated — after Kafka’s works, people suddenly discovered numerous pre-existing Kafkas.

Imitator vs innovator

Ido: What about addressing imitator vs innovator

Yaron: There is undeniably a contrast between being an imitator and developing creatives. One can appreciate the creativity and originality in an artwork

Many developers of these algorithms may argue that there is no such thing as universally accepted innovation. They might think it’s too nebulous or indefinable. True, art is continually being debated. In today’s world, however, academics referencing a modern text can distinguish it from a non-modern text. Hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation) is concerned with this. This is a key concern for anyone attempting to parse meanings between texts. They specifically deal with this type of issue, struggling with the historical character that stems from the cultural context of things

To actually become a part of our lived experience and contribute significantly to it, a computer must evolve from a mere imitator to an innovator and maker. It should aim to produce something new rather than simply replicate what someone else has already invented. I am not claiming that such an algorithm does not exist, but we should be cautious about asserting its presence prematurely. I want to say that the test is not the ability to reproduce or fake someone else’s painting style but rather the ability to make a new cultural shift.

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