Ways In Which Computers Might Be Used

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about interesting uses for computers. I consider myself maybe 1/3 idea-guy, 1/3 code-junkie, 1/3 people-skills. Sometimes, an idea coalesces from amongst my feeble neurons that tickles all three of those little personality sectors.

It may seem bleak, but history has proven me right on this: At the intersection of what is possible, what is not-quite-too-unethical-to-imagine, and what would be profitable comes the future. Typically, no more than 18mo ahead.

I read this article today about a scam involving computer-generated music on Spotify. The details aren’t particularly interesting, nor is the general architecture of the issue novel in any way. There’s a bunch of spam being generated; each song pays out a certain amount based on how many times it is played to customers; it’s freakishly easy to orchestrate the generation of large amounts of fake music with meager programming skills.

Most creatives wouldn’t do something like that. If you bought 1000 canvases, it would seem wasteful and silly to just randomly splatter paint across them all and put them all up on Ebay. Quantity over quality is typically just bad business, plain and simple.

Computers can change that equation a little bit due to the scale of what’s possible. If I wanted to, I could generate thousands of detailed, nuanced, unique, color-theory aware abstract paintings. Per minute.

What do creatives normally do with generation tools?

There’s a talk about procedural content generation by Kate Compton, it’s quite good.

You might not be that interested in game-development, totally understandable, but if you’re interested in a quick overview of what kind of interactive content computers can come up with, it’s a great 30min overview.

People have been sounding this alarm for decades. It’s something that’s inherently understood about computers and how many millions of tasks they are able to do in such short amounts of time. That’s now news to anybody. It’s a lot like the global discussion about automation. It’s been a concern on the radar for decades, even centuries in certain niches, and now that computers have reached this weird apogee of accessibility, things are different.

Automation won’t create jobs forever. Consider horses. On one hand, they didn’t really fare that well economically from the invention of the automobile. There’s an argument to be made that the horses remaining are living better lives as a result, and that’s a good thing. My point being that cars didn’t create any financial opportunities for them. The same is true for human beings. There's only so far that we can go once the robots start advancing faster. When the robots can perform maintenance and installation work, that's a huge turning point for human work, because most of the jobs that were dissolved in favor of robots would have been “replaced” by jobs for humans maintaining and installing those bots. There's a consolidation towards robo-mechanized work that will happen, the way a lot of people that had been in traditional trade work become factory workers to make ends meet. There were fewer shoe cobblers, more shoe-making-machine assembly line workers.

We'll save the diversion into UBI and socialism for another day. Let's instead go to our automation parallel metaphor.

Within the next few years, and likely sooner, large swathes of creative media are going to primarily be generated rather than created by human beings. Digital media obviously faces the most aggressive attacks, but it has company in its misery.

3D printers are set to disrupt more and more materials-related creativity. Software makes it possible to just ask the computer for whatever geometry you need, the code spits it out with almost no regard for how complex it is, and the printer can print it in just a few hours or less.

Architecture will be commoditized to the algorithms. It happens in warehouse planning, grocery store planning, and other locales already. Retail is an interesting niche that has a big head start on this sort of thing, because it has been valuable to know how to plan a grocery store for optimal routing for some time.

I think we might not be far off from AIs that have a more intuitive understanding of how human beings perceive and experience all different forms of art. It's one thing to note the geometric and color-theoretic aspects of works of art, it's another thing altogether to be able to describe how it makes one feel.

Saturn Eating His Own Son – Francisco Goya

How does that image make you feel?

Here’s an image I generated in about 90 sec using a web browser:

The prompt was “giant eating his own son, bleak colors, red blood, eyes wide with rage.” It is a work that has shortcomings, but I daresay that *something* is being evoked here.

And again, that’s just with a laptop and a web browser. You can imagine a creator with just a little more resources than that, maybe $50 of cloud compute or something, would be able to create much more coherent works.

It’s disingenuous to declare “this time it’s different!” every time there is an advancement in technology, but there’s something to be said about the times when a certain technology settles itself in the reach of everyday people. Computers weren’t that big of a deal until everybody had one. Less than a century later, we all carry unbelievably advanced machines with us in our pockets and spend non-trivial amounts of time looking at pet photos. My phone has more computing resources in a minute of its existence than did NASA have for months, if not years, during the sixties. The scale is mind-boggling, but I’m probably preaching to the choir here, we all know computers are powerful these days.

Sometime soon, all that I may write, all that I may think, all that I may say, could just be generated by a sufficiently creative AI. It will never tire as I have become tired. It will never hunger, never thirst. It will be my essence and spirit on demand, with a million times more throughput than I could ever provide.

Am I crazy for wondering what will happen to me when that version of me comes online? When it’s attached to a website and can be browsed for fun?

Time will tell.