Engines of Our Ingenuity


by: Andrew Boyd

Today, new territory. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Itís not hard to see how computers have changed the way photographers and composers work. Digital photography is cheap, fast, and easy to edit. Itís possible to write and realize musical compositions on a computer without the aid of a single performer. Creativity usually springs from the human; the computer is just a tool. But what happens when we hand the creative process to the computer?

We canít just hand over everything. If you sit in front of your PC and tell it ďmake art,Ē you wonít be met with so much as look of disbelief from your electronic counterpart. But it is possible to write software containing instructions that result in a compelling picture or song.

Scott Davies picture

Mathematics gives rise to some astoundingly beautiful forms — fractals being a good example. A programmer creates a precise set of instructions and the computer renders a figure. He looks at the result and modifies the formulas until he finds something he likes. The skill required to impart brushstrokes on canvas has vanished. But computers can render images that wouldnít be possible with brushstrokes alone, like images that change over time.

An example can be found in the music visualization tools on home computers. Here, a program converts music into a collection of changing colors and patterns on the computer screen. The programs are quite creative, as can be seen by whatís been produced. Itís worth taking a look at the visualization options on your music player if you havenít already done so.

image of MilkDrop music visualizer

Itís also possible to instruct a computer to compose music. A programmer might include guidelines like ďplay a piano using this chord structureĒ or ďuse a syncopated rhythm.Ē Then, with the click of a mouse, set the computer to work.

[From Olympos audio]

The results remain pretty avant-garde. But there exist a surprising number of languages for telling a computer how to write music, and theyíre constantly improving.

Computers are at the center of a larger artistic movement known as generative art. Generative art requires an artist to create something which in turn creates the art. Computer programs are a natural choice, but not the only generative medium. Smart materials that change over time or at different temperatures offer a world possibilities. Some ideas are a bit hard to swallow. Is blowing a fan on wind chimes really creating generative music?

[Passage audio]

But moving instances of generative art are out there — the result of creativity seeking to fashion creativity. And it reminds us once again what aspiring creatures we crazy humans really are.

Substrate by Jared Tarbell

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

From Olympos audio is from the website of Robert Inventor: http://robertinventor.com/software/main/index.htm. See also: http://www.robertinventor.com/software/3.0/index.htm. Accessed September 11, 2012. Passage audio by E. A. Boyd.

Generative Art. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_art. Accessed September 11, 2012.

Generative Music. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_music. Accessed September 11, 2012.

The screenshot of the MilkDrop music visualizer and the work by Scott Draves are from Wikimedia Commons. The work by Jared Tarbell is from his Gallery of Computation website, http://www.complexification.net/gallery. Accessed September 11, 2012.

This episode was first aired on September 13, 2012

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.