Blast from the future What is this research which looks for fundamental knowledge on the border between art and science?

July 10, 2020

Artificial Life Research

Blast from the future
What is this research which looks for fundamental knowledge on the border between art and science?

Professor Takashi Ikegami is known for his research on complex systems and artificial life. He is also an artist, whose creative endeavors revolve around the notion that lifelike behavior emerges in the midst of overwhelming amounts of data. In our world post-digital revolution, what is this research that looks for the fundamental knowledge necessary following artificial intelligence (AI), at the border between art and science?

By Takashi Ikegami
Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Android opera Scary Beauty. The opera written by Keiichiro Shibuya was performed at the National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) on July 22, 2018, as a public program of the 2018 Conference on Artificial Life (ALIFE 2018), where around 800 attendees experienced a blast of wind from the future.

If you carry on research for many years, there are lots of interesting ideas and calculations that disappear along the way, without making it into academic papers. Most academic papers, after all, are no more than words with two-dimensional figures and tables attached. How much falls through the cracks due to these limited expressions? For me, art is what saves that which has fallen.

My first venture into the arts was the work, Description Instability (ICC Tokyo, 2005). After I met artist Keiichiro Shibuya in 2004, he and I used a computer to generate sounds never heard before and played them on a Taylor-Couette flow device. Unlike ordinary sound, which is based on the physics principles of wavelength and frequency over time, the sound of sound art is particles of sound filling space. Starting out from that sense of wonder, I have now continued with such activities for all of 12 years.

Four years after I started out in the arts, a revolution occurred in 2008. That may be the true reason for my having continued in the arts to this day. In 2009, Google employees proved that every possible configuration of the Rubik's Cube can be solved in 20 moves or fewer; moreover, this was announced not in a science journal but on a blog. It was also in 2009 that then-Associate Professor Deb Roy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started the Human Speechome Project, using sensors throughout the home to capture images and sounds of Roy's new son over a three-year period. In the case of the Rubik’s Cube, the 20 moves were derived from a huge combination table, investigating permutations equal to 1/10,000 of Avogadro’s number. Roy, on the other hand, provided a new perspective for understanding language acquisition by children, using as variables the time-space patterns of people caring for a child in a home. Around the same time, 2008 saw the birth of other ideas that are now all the rage, including deep learning and the blockchain concept that is the background theory of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. 2008 was also the year the iPhone first saw the light of day. Since that time, science has had its attitude completely changed. That’s because the complexity observed up to now is different in types, quality and orders of magnitude. How to handle this complexity is the central issue 10 years after the revolution.

And this is not an issue just for science. The sound art of Ryoji Ikeda, showing off enormous quantities of data, and the dance performances by the company Rhizomatiks making use of deep learning, are examples of the search for artistic expressions going beyond what human beings can create. It is important to continue striving for this new scientific awareness and artistic expression. Currently in our laboratory, the simulation of a million flocking birds (Ars 2017), learning theory generating the autonomous movements of the android Alter, and the implementation of the large robust cellular automaton of Peter Gacs (ICC 2018) are going on at the border of art and science. The android opera Scary Beauty, written by Keiichiro Shibuya and performed at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) in 2018, shows this new science and art at its best. In this project, our android equipped with our autonomous motion program conducted an orchestra. The project gives us a premonition of future symbiosis between humans and AI, while shaking up our notion of how people show emotions and our philosophy of life.

Today the barriers between art and science are low, in an age that depends on everyone being scientists and artists. The boundaries between the sciences and the humanities have been relegated to the past. What is necessary in this new age is the creation of a new language. What we need today is to see things that at first appear to be unrelated, and to experience, make and struggle. At no time more than the present age is it needed for us to be a comprehensive university. We will not be able to keep up by relying on the on-site wisdom of studying necessary things only when they become necessary. What is demanded is true fundamental knowledge. Now more than ever, I want people to feel the transparent wind blasting in from the future.


* This article was originally printed in Tansei 38 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of March 2019.

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