Art and science, artificial intelligence and propaganda

The mission of New York Council for the Humanities (NYCH) is to reach general, diverse audiences, providing them with  engaging speakers on important humanities topics that everyone will find interesting or useful.  Any non-profit organization in New York state can request a NYCH Public Scholar to speak, at no cost to the host organization.  I am currently serving as a Public Scholar (2015-2017) and I offer three topics (below) which I can adapt to any audience, if desired. If you are interested in hosting one of these lectures, contact the Council. There is an application and a small application fee, but don’t let that  dissuade you. The fee can be waived if requested, and if you need help with the application you can contact me at alexander (at) dactyl (dot) org

deadleaf_mimic-jpg_credit_rahul_k_natuNabokov’s Unorthodox Theory of Insect Mimicry: why science needs more artists 
photo credit: Rahul K. Natu

It’s a commonplace to say that good science requires imagination, yet scientist aren’t really encouraged to read poetry or to take up painting.  Maybe they should.  This talk will present the example of Vladimir Nabokov, renown Russian-American novelist and butterfly scientist who used his artistic knowledge to understand how evolution can work. He went against the prevailing theories of his day and was attacked for being unscientific, but recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic guesses were amazingly accurate and precise.

Nabokov didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots.  He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty Viceroy species butterfly look like the bitter-tasting Monarch, allowing it to survive better.  Although he believed that natural selection had shaped many of nature’s forms, he thought the one thing natural selection could not create was mimicry, which could be better explained by other natural mechanisms.  This heresy infuriated scientists who thought insect mimics were the best illustration of the gradual powers of selection. More than fifty years later, Nabokov’s genius is finally being recognized. What was it about Nabokov’s way of thinking that allowed him to see what others could not? And how did his understanding of nature inspire his fiction?

This presentation will look at “artistic” versus “scientific” ways of understanding nature.  Art and science lovers in the audience will be encouraged to share their experiences in different styles of analysis.  We will try to break down the false barrier between the “two cultures” and examine how critical thinking, keen powers of observation, wit, logic, and imagination are necessary for both art and science.

honda_asimo_credti_gnsinArtificial Intelligence Is Everywhere: Should we be worried?
photo credit: Gnsin

Every time we use Google, purchase an item on Amazon, write an email with Gmail, or post something on Facebook, we interact with computer algorithms that adapt to our Internet activity.  Apps can translate spoken English sentences into spoken Chinese.  “Deep learning” programs find patterns and can help doctors diagnose cancer or help singles find mates.  In the court system, judges can use software to analyze patterns in criminal behavior before passing sentences.  We call our phones and our weapons “smart,” and all of these advances in technology are said to use artificial “intelligence.”

We may wonder, What is intelligence?  What’s the difference, if any, between an organism and a machine that can seek an object, read signs, or identify a pattern?  Both can obtain goals, set either by evolution or design.  Do organisms and machines use similar methods for learning, classifying, remembering and interpreting? Are animals and people really just organic machines? If so, could science eventually make machines that can learn to make up their own minds as robots do in science fiction? In this presentation, we will talk about some of the differences between the present-day artificial intelligence and biological intelligence. Specifically, we will learn about biologists studying cell signaling who say that even the simplest unit of life can make interpretations in ways that smart machines do not. Animals can take advantage of chance associations, which machines are usually designed to ignore, and machine learning programs are not designed to invent new knowledge–not yet anyway.
Examining smart technologies can inspire us to learn about our own learning processes and help us decide whether or not it’s a good idea to rely on machines to make judgements.

h-r-hoppsPropaganda, Public Relations, Rhetoric and Art: How we process emotionally-charged information
Art Credit: H.R. Hopps

One of the most important roles of education is to help people develop critical thinking skills, which involve understanding, not just what is said, but how it is said.  This presentation will explore the ways in which enjoying poetry, literary fiction, visual imagery and other art forms can help people develop critical thinking skills. We will examine the differences between propaganda and art, and identify the devices they have in common. We will do “close readings” of WWI propaganda and 21st century British political rhetoric as well as look at brief excerpts from political satirists, Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, who show how the use of rhetoric can undo emotional bias rather than reinforce it. The presentation will also include clips from the seminal documentary on the subject, The Century of the Self.

While typical approaches to teaching critical thinking skills may focus on achieving clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, depth, and breadth–the products of critical thought–they may not address how critical thought may be subverted or explore why reporting facts in a logical manner can fail to be persuasive. We will also briefly look at new research in biosemiotics (the study of sign use in biological systems) that helps us understand how meanings are created and reinforced, so that we can better understand how the same mechanisms, which help us think, can also allow us to not think.

Victoria N. Alexander is a novelist and a philosopher of science. She is on the editorial board of Biosemiotics journal and director at the Dactyl Foundation, where she has worked to facilitate interactions between artists and scientists.  She earned her PhD in English at the Graduate Center, City University NY and did her dissertation research in teleology, intentionality, evolutionary theory, and complexity science at the Santa Fe Institute, with support from the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, and she is a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center alum. Her interdisciplinary research tends to focus on the creative and intelligent uses of chance and the changing conceptions of chance in science, religion, and art throughout history. Alexander contributed to Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art (Yale, 2016), which has been praised in The New Yorker, Vogue, The Guardian, New Republic, Smithsonian Magazine, and Science.

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