How do living systems persist?  This is a millennia old question; and, although we have yet to articulate a coherent answer, it’s probably best answered via multiple perspectives, lest one become caught in a “local minimum”.  In other words, like the Blind Men and the Elephant, each human discipline has its own preconceptions and blind-spots.  The “trick”, so to speak, in solving any truly complex phenomenon is to face the paradox and synthesize the many seemingly contradictory perspectives into one richly integrated creation to be tested in the world.  My practice has always been drawn to these complex inter-disciplinary terrains.  So, in this spirit, this chronology summarizes in historical order the distinct artistic, scientific, design, philosophical and technological threads that I have woven together to implement “sentient observatories”.

Much of this project’s rigor is seated in my original studies at UC Santa Barbara in Environmental Sciences and Physical Chemistry.  I really enjoyed this scientific thread; however, to ground the science in a more meaningful context, I pursued design by completing an MArch at CU Denver.  This design thread has been the backbone of my professional career since then.

But in 2001, 9/11 happened.  As a result, even larger questions about vitality in the face of such discord were raised.  As a result, I entered the World Trade Center Memorial design competition.  And, this is where the art, science, design and technology threads first came together in fledgling form.

In 2003, my World Trade Center Memorial design entry proposed an interactive art sculpture whose intent was to bring inanimate architecture “alive”, so that the built environment literally perceives the patterns of people around it.  Its subsequent behavior is then synthesized to bring people together and learn more about themselves and each other via this proposed virtuous cycle between people and technology.

At lower left of image, smaller crowds engendered minimal response (click on image to enlarge); yet, over time the installation would learn to create and select  particular displays (diagram in center) able to attract more people as shown in lower right of image.  But, the diagram I submitted in 2003 is the merest gloss of a possible sentient system.  To actually create a sentient artifact with authentically creative inter-relations among people is to engage timeless questions, questions that a design practice alone struggled to support.

Not surprisingly, this investigation occupied most of a decade.  At first, as early as 2004, I was fascinated by artificial neural networks, not unlike those under the hood of current Deep Learning implementations; however, once I read a number of neuroscience papers and investigated some of the critiques of “brain as computer” by John Searle, Hubert Dreyfus and Rodney Brooks, I realized that my goal of authentic sentience wasn’t down any purely digital road.  So, I went to many lectures at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley, and was part of a neuroscience study in Professor Levi’s perception lab.

In 2007, I applied and was accepted to the Conceptual Information Arts program at San Francisco State under Steven Wilson at the time.  But, after a semester I realized that my technology, or “medium”, able to implement my proposed “sentient observatories” was not ready.  The 4min video I used to apply, however, still nicely captures the original, if still nascent, intent of this new medium.  After SF State I recommitted myself to rigorously articulate both the theory and design of what I then called “synthetic cognition”.  And for technical implementation purposes, between 2007 and 2009, I completed the analog and digital circuit design tracks at San Francisco City College along with JAVA programming.

By the end of 2011, I had a manuscript, which – based on first principles – describes in detail both a schematic design (click excerpt at left) to build and a rigorous theory to refine a new artistic medium able to implement my original World Trade Center art installation.  By synthesizing the thermodynamics of physical chemistry, an understanding of complex systems from environmental science and an intuition for animal sentience from design, philosophy and neuroscience, this manuscript then became the basis for several experiments and a papers to test and implement this new medium.

In early 2012, I gave this talk to a Bay Area Artificially Intelligence group; and, based on the talk, colleagues from this AI community introduced me to Prof. Terrance Deacon, neurobiological anthropologist at UC Berkeley.  His work on how – again, from first principles – life emerged from non-life dovetailed very nicely with my own research.  We published this paper and continue to work together today.

Also, in 2012, I gave this short talk at the 2012 joint conference of the Amer. Soc. for Cybernetics and the Bateson Idea Group at Asilomar, CA.  This talk summarized this published paper, which distills the theoretical portion of my 2011 manuscript.

In early 2013, in an effort to integrate my art, science and design efforts above, while enhancing my team leadership skills, I became a design lead at the Exploratorium.  Here, I co-founded the Studio for Public Spaces, which builds interactive art and science installations in public spaces around the world.

From here on into 2018 and beyond, I will continue to develop a body of interactive installations, which will further integrate sentience into these immersive sculptures, a body of work called sentient observatories.





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