I Believe in the Ballet

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When I was a child I never went to any art museums.

And I did not go to performances unless they were mandated by our school through choir and theater.

In fact the only performance I saw with my family growing up was the same thing that apparently everyone saw in my generation, which was the Lion King Musical as it toured around the country.

My parents watch football.

And I don’t think I even know what the last piece was of literature that they had read.

The first time I saw the ballet was not until my mid-twenties. My wife and I went to see Dracula performed here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And the experience changed my life.

My reasons for loving the ballet are first and foremost that there is no speaking. The drama plays out on the bodies of the dancers, the emotive swells of the music, and the physicality of the choreography itself.

But my love for ballet runs deeper than that, and to explain why, and to explain why despite this coronavirus pandemic I am holding onto our tickets for future performances for as long as they keep it going, I will have a brief aside here to discuss my realizations in reading about…strangely enough…artificial intelligence.

Homepage | DeepMind

Heady Programs

For anyone who has been following AI, they like to participate in PR campaigns that center around games.

Most likely the most remembered one being the DeepBlue competition with Garry Kasparov in a game of chess.

IBM also experimented with Watson in a game of Jeopardy.

And DeepMind, Google’s own artificial intelligence, has swept through several games. First there was chess, followed by Go. And most recently (and this is where they stopped with games), the real time strategy game Starcraft II.

To see the results of the experience, whether through the documentaries or through the YouTube demonstration, is sort of unnerving. In each the AI will typically make decisions that look strange and unorthodox to any seasoned player of the game under scrutiny, but on second and third glance it turns out that the move is considered brilliant.

To arrive at these moves, the AI is “trained” by getting certain basic concepts and objectives, has certain aspects of the games tagged, and then the program is fed thousands upon thousands of games.

Blizzard, the developers of Starcraft II, allowed the AI program to access replays from the game across almost a decade of play. While in the case of Alpha Go, it simply played against itself.

And each time, it learned a sliver of information that it incorporated into a vast bank of perceived actions and respones.

Until at last the program beats the best of the best in a way that makes us all feel a little silly.

For each of the players in these documentaries and demonstrations, the transitions of emotions on their faces is worth the price of entry every time. It is uncanny to see the results of a battle against AI render their entire life’s athletic dedication to a cognitive sport to sizzling ashes. At first, they stare blankly, and then they might rub their hands through their hair (or bald scalp), and then they sort of laugh hysterically. And then there is the acceptance and even the excitement of having this opponent to play against indefinitely, who challenges their most foundational assumptions of the game they have come to love.

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In the 21st century, we too have had to face this predicament. In Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, he correctly laments that the technology of AI in displacing a workforce does not have to be perfect. It does not even have to be better than you, you who might be above average in data management or statistical analysis. All the AI has to do is be average. The cost effective development of AI, having to not pay a human, allows for a digital slavery where the AI has no conscious awareness that it is even a slave. Unlike a human who needs healthcare, a livable wage, and an environment where they receive some positive reinforcement, AI just needs a task.

Let’s take computer grading of essays, for example. For AP tests awarding college credit, or for standardized tests with essays from K-12 students, there are literally millions of essays to grade. This is a hugely laborious task, so much so that sometimes education agencies will consult craigslist for readers and graders. If that were not bad enough, anyone who has done this sort of heavy reading of essays featuring a response to a similar topic, we all know what ends up happening.

We stop reading.

What we actually do is sort of glaze over the essay to make sure it’s organized, it has a thesis, and it has points and arguments. Combined with evidence, and maybe even a counterargument, this essay gets the highest response. Another essay gets a slightly lower response. We are not evaluating ideas, we are simply identifying usage.

And that fundamental difference invites AI into the picture. Like us after the 100th essay, the program would not have to evaluate the ideas behind the words, it would only have to identify certain features.

And it could do this in seconds instead of hours.

Not only that, but one could make the case that an AI grading all of the essays would be far more equitable and ethical, because pesky humans have different tastes, and while one person would give an essay a high score, with another providing a middling score, the AI would take care of it in a way that would satisfy hopefully everyone.

Or at least make everyone glad to not have to grade essays…

The Body as the Last Refuge

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So what are the things that computers and robots will have a hard time emulating? Many of these boil down to our body, or to the very social aspects of what makes us human. Human touch and bonding, human conversations and personality, and the movements of the body that seem fluid and beautiful.

In some harrowing science fiction stories and movies, human bodies are also good for pornography and prostitution, where the body is itself commodified and capitalized as the only thing worth selling.

But I’d like to imagine that on the other end of this spectrum there is the beauty of the ballet. It is one of the artforms I always love to go see because it is a reminder of the research and development that natural selection took for millions of years to give us what we have here. It is the brilliance of the mind to design a dance that only humans can do, and it is the body’s adaptation of the dance for an audience in which it is fully realized. While I won’t say that it is impossible for robots to do ballet, I do think we have a lot of time before ballet will be done in a way that crosses the uncanny valley.

Ballet is a celebration of the body. The one that we are given is finite, and it is analog, and it is difficult to download information ourselves, or upload it to other people. But we have software programmed into us to appreciate our own bodies and those of others, whether they have a perfect physique or not. When I watch the ballet, I grow an awareness of the fortune of my own body, even when I lament that my legs are not bigger than my face (unlike male ballet dancers).

I am desperate to return to a ballet performance. Until that time arrives, until coronavirus has been muted enough to allow public displays again, the philosophy of why I love the ballet stays with me. Technology still cannot compete with the fluidity of the physical space a dancer takes up. My heart goes out to all those performers losing precious youth while they remain backstage. But please know that no matter what happens, specifically because we are human and live in these bodies, that ballet will never die.

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