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From the Spring 2018 Edition of Discovery

Do Androids Dream of Electric Art?

Physics Professor David Peak asks why people create art

Professors David and Terry Peak with the perpetually creating AARON.

Professors David and Terry Peak with the perpetually creating AARON.

Photo courtesy Mary-Ann Muffoletto

At the College of Science’s Science Unwrapped public outreach event in March 2018, featured speaker David Peak presented the talk, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Art?”

Many of you sci-fi fans will immediately recognize Peak’s inspiration was Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which subsequently served as the basis for the 1982 film, Blade Runner.

The novel, the movie and Peak’s train of thought explore a provocative idea: Will artificial intelligence ever become “human”? (Hold that thought.)

A lover of art, Peak is particularly intrigued by the question, “Do you have to be human to create art?”

He and wife Terry Peak, professor of social work at USU, are longtime supporters of the arts (and sciences) at Utah State. Among their donations to USU’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art is AARON, a computer program crafted by British artist Harold Cohen (1928-2016), that creates original artistic images. (The College of Science Dean’s Office is very lucky to have AARON on loan in its office, while NEHMA is undergoing renovations.)

AARON isn’t an acronym -- at least Cohen never explained the moniker as such -- though Peak suspects the first two letters stand for “artificial artist.”

Cohen’s initial version of AARON was a large drawing machine, of which Peak displayed a photo at his Science Unwrapped talk. (A bright, young girl sitting behind me in the audience exclaimed, “THAT doesn’t look like a robot!”)

Indeed, the early AARON was an example of what Peak calls “Little a.i.,” that is, machines that “solve problems really fast.” (Like my laptop, dishwasher and washing machine -- none of which resemble Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator or Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.)

Peak Receives National Undergrad Research Mentorship Honor

David Peak is the 2018 recipient of the Council on Undergraduate Research-Goldwater Scholars Faculty Mentorship Award. He will be formally recognized at the organization’s biennial conference this July in Arlington, Virginia.

Peak is only the fifth recipient of the award and the first Utahn to receive the honor. Selected from 10 finalists nationwide, he has mentored, to date, more than 30 USU undergrads, who have received 36 Goldwater Scholarships and Honorable Mentions, in addition to other prestigious national awards.

In contrast, “Big A.I.,” like USU’s AARON, “thinks like a human.” AARON the Younger, displayed on a large video monitor, chooses colors and draws random shapes that resemble seascapes, birds and arid landscapes. AARON’s meandering sketches are playful, mesmerizing. It’s almost as though AARON is musing, contemplating, thinking like a human. (Hmmm)

Which brings Peak to another question, “Why do humans create art?”

“The oldest known human-created art is ‘Art Object,’ discovered in Auditorium Cave of the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetaka in central India,” Peak says. “It’s around 700,000 years old, which suggests it could have been created by a pre-Homo sapiens humanoid.”

Wow. But why was it created? Why does anyone pick up a musical instrument or a paintbrush? To express feelings? To solve a problem?

Good questions, Peak says. But one thing he knows for sure: Those activities will make you think. They’ll make you smarter. So, what’s one of the best gifts you can give a young person, he asks? Enable them to pursue art. Provide them with music lessons. Give them crayons!

As for the question,“Will artificial intelligence ever become human?”

“I really don’t know,” Peak says. “Maybe one day if an A.I. being actually purchases a work of art, we’ll realize it’s ‘human.’”

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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