The art of science and the science of art: Pareidolia

Photo by Steve DiPaola

Scientist and artist Steve DiPaola has dedicated his career to the interplay between human cognition and artificial intelligence (AI). Now he’s continuing this work while adding a new dichotomy. His latest site-specific artwork at Surrey Art Gallery is an example of how intertwined science and art really are, and what it means to be both an artist and a scientist.

I’ve always been a bit of both,” explains DiPaola. “At high school I drew but then I got into computer science at college and for many years after that I would have to separate the two because one didn’t really appreciate the other. In fact, for many years in NYC I had two resumes: one art and one computer science.”

It was not until 2002 while at Stanford University that DiPaola felt comfortable claiming he was both an artist and a scientist. His latest installation demonstrates what he calls this “alchemy.” Pareidolia consists of two screens placed in the lobby of The Surrey Art Gallery and employs pattern recognition software to augment footage of the lobby space and volunteer workers in the space.

“We used a deep dream algorithm and changed it a lot. We actually allowed bias and hallucination to happen within the system,” says DiPaola. “The result is that shapes come alive in the nothing. Often it is in the nothing areas that some ghost, shape, object or flick of the light seems to come alive.”

Truth and beauty

Still from Pareidolia. | Photo by Steve DiPaola

DiPaola adopts a flexible approach to his creative and scientific investigations, sometimes starting by sketching and other times by mapping out a scientific journey for the work to take.

“I think both art and science are ways to find truth and beauty,” says DiPaola. “They just tend to use different kinds of techniques. One takes really big philosophical swallows, the art, and the science tends to want more exact truths.”

DiPaola describes his creative work as being steeped in modernism with a strong focus on deconstructing things in order to understand them. He also cites abstraction, cubism, futurism and impressionism as points of reference for his computer-generated artwork.

“This comes back to the research because I am trying to get a strong emotional element within the artwork and I actually try and make computers be emotional or expressive,” says DiPaola.

Art system

Still from Pareidolia. | Photo by Steve DiPaola

Typically what I’m doing in my research is that I’m understanding something about the human condition, human creativity and expression, and then modelling that in a computer in a way [with which] I can experiment and play,” says DiPaola.

Through careful programming, DiPaola is able to create generative computing systems that react to source material or people. In the case of Pareidolia the desired effect is that of a dream-like world.

“I am building an art apparatus that I like to call an art system,” explains DiPaola. “At that point I turn it on and it is actually doing more things than I thought I put in because it is reacting. Although this piece isn’t interactive I did work with people in the Surrey Art Gallery and the way they reacted all affected the dream state.”

The creative side of DiPaola’s output is just one aspect of his work at Simon Fraser University. He is also an expert in aspects of AI such as facial and emotional recognition.

“We are trying to use AI and graphics as a way to better understand the human experience and to help humans,” says DiPaola.

More recently DiPaola and his team have also been focusing on software that will enable humans to eventually understand animal expressions.

“It is time to crack the ability for humans and animals to communicate with each other, which is not a little thing,” says DiPaola. “But some of the same [AI] techniques that make art will look at animal expressions. This is an effort that is already underway, and gives you the breadth of the lab. But all of this is all still about expression and AI picking that up with our sensing systems.”

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