Subverting Cognition: Surrealist Automatism and Brooks’ Intelligence Theory
March 13, 2017 § 3 Comments
In Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, Rodney Brooks presents his unique take on the pathway to create meaningful artificial intelligence. To briefly summarize, he suggests that removing clunky algorithms aimed at simulating cognition, while simultaneously creating a direct link between sensation and action, supports more advanced general intelligence (functional intelligence). For me, Brooks’ theory of intelligence found in “the interaction between perception and action” (Brooks Ch.3 “Planetary Ambassadors”) called to mind the techniques of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and André Masson. The Surrealists used automatism — painting without conscious thought — to subvert their own cognition and the rational mind, in order to tap into deeper and more raw thoughts and feelings. I argue that given the parallel intention of Brooks’ approach to AI and Surrealist Automatism, an exploration of the latter can help us gain an understanding of Brooks’ method.
Before diving in, let me quickly clarify what I mean when I say ‘meaningful artificial intelligence’ or ‘general intelligence’. In Flesh and Machines, Brooks distinguishes between the tasks and processes traditionally tackled by AI researchers (playing chess at the level of mastery, solving calculus problems, etc) and more practical expressions of intelligence (entering a room, navigating a new environment, avoiding obstacles), and points to the fact that programming a robot to do the latter is a considerable challenge. Thus, I define meaningful or general artificial intelligence as the intelligence that human beings and animals employ in performing ‘basic’ operations, but are far more complicated on a cognitive level than they appear to us. Brooks’ strategy was geared towards cracking the code of programming this kind of intelligence, and it was these simpler actions and motions that the Surrealists sought to simplify their brush strokes and methods too.
Caught in a time of political uncertainty both within the art world and the world at large, the Surrealists reflected on how the conscious mind and higher-level cognition is difficult and beset with ideology from what they saw as a flawed society. They wanted to divorce the art-making process from the constraints of the rational mind indoctrinated by an oppressive society. In order to escape, they adopted a working method called automatism, which allowed them to essentially paint without conscious thinking, thus sourcing the lines and forms that resulted from their subconscious.
Pioneered by André Masson, the Surrealists painted using automatism by first completely clearing their minds. Often, they would even close their eyes or use drugs or natural supplements to achieve a more detached state. Then, they would allow their hand, holding a paintbrush, to flow randomly across the canvas, so that the resulting lines and forms were more a product of chance than conscious manipulation of the paintbrush. In this way, their style was free of rational control. In this way, the Surrealists thought that the compositions they created using automatism came directly from their subconscious — the epicenter of interaction between perception and action. In other words, they tried to simplify their cognitive processes as much as physically possible down to the point where they merely operated on the basis of the interaction between their perception — the way the paintbrush felt across the grain of the canvas — and action — creating a line via the paintbrush on the canvas.
As you can see, there are strong parallels between the working method of the Surrealists and Brooks’ approach to simulating general intelligence. In explaining the benefits of his theory, Brooks describes his “subsumption architecture” for machines, by which he created a hierarchy of processing levels simulating the process of evolution of traits.
“For Allen [his first physical robot] I targeted three layers. The first was… to make sure that the robot avoided contact with objects… The second layer would give the robot wanderlust, so that it would move about aimlessly. The third layer was to explore purposefully whenever it perceived anything interesting…” Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines
Using Brooks’ vocabulary and framework of layers, one can analyze the process of the Surrealists in a similar way. The primary (first, or bottom) layer of automatism was to paint. The fundamental task programmed into the Surrealist’s action was to paint by dipping paintbrush into paint and applying it to the canvas. The second layer was to paint continuously without really stopping. The surrealists were concerned that if they paused longer than an instant, the conscious mind would kick back in. In terms of programming, the continuous painting layer doesn’t have to process how to paint, because the first layer achieved that. Then, the third and tertiary layer was to explore/follow through on a particular line if the sensation of that line or the texture in that region of the canvas captured the artist momentarily. Thus, the automatism employed by some of the Surrealist painters very closely mirrors the “thoughts”of Brooks’ coded AI. In fact, the drawing by Andre Masson above even looks like it could be an aerial view of the paths that Allen may have taken, moving around Brooks’ research lab.
I find the parallels between the techniques of the Surrealists (developed and employed in the early 1900’s) and Brooks’ theory of intelligence (developed and employed in the late 1900’s) to be confirming the validity and ingenuity of Brooks’ theory for machine intelligence. That is to say, if human beings sought to shed the weight and burden of clunky cognitive thought in order to achieve a greater level of functionality in expressing themselves on the canvas, it is incredibly impressive and valid for Brooks to suggest the same for his machines; he argued to remove dedicated “cognition boxes” from his machines, thus eliminating time-consuming and complex cognition algorithms from his AI’s ‘thought’ processes.
While Brooks may not have drawn inspiration from the methods of the Surrealists, I find it beautiful that leaders in two remarkably distinct disciplines both arrived at a similar point of seeking a purified relationship between sensation and action to achieve greater expression and intelligence of movement. Though it has often been suggested that links between memories will be the key to creating thinking artificial intelligence, Brooks’ theories have led me for the first time to consider that in the future, progress in AI development will also come from the mutual inspiration between disciplines, especially the humanities in creating more “intelligent” and human-like robots and machines.
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