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Linear Versus Nonlinear Perception

May 24, 2023

Linear thinking about nonlinear concepts. That is one of the skills Yves Bergquist of the Entertainment Technology Center@ the University of California (ETC@USC) predicted would be among the most sought-after in Artificial Intelligence (AI) development. Helping machines learn does not mean teaching them to think differently; instead, humans must adopt new ways of thinking in their daily lives.

That is a difficult concept for me to grasp. While I am okay with thinking about problems from different angles and perspectives, my thought process is often like a jumble of yarn rather than a linear approach. I have to straighten the mess rather than linearly create my thoughts.

With that personal bias, I listened to Bergquist’s presentation at the HPA Tech Retreat and wrestled with how we linearly see nonlinear phenomena. I was struggling for examples in my head, and then I found the work of artist Nathan Sawaya. Sawaya’s medium is the Lego Brick. His “Art of the Brick” exhibition, which I saw in Boston, has been seen all over the world. Sawaya employs this most linear media to create images with a nonlinear shape that the brain perceives.

In Sawaya’s exhibition, a red dress had the flow and shape of a wind-blown garment, but it lacked smooth curves. The Pietà-like image does not have the smooth lines of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture in the Vatican, but it evokes the same cry of lament and loss. These abstract and flowing concepts were achieved with a very linear medium that conveyed visual stimulation and emotion, similar to the nonlinear media I was used to seeing.

Flowing red dress from Nathan Sawaya’s exhibition.

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Encouraging people to consider how we can structure our chaotic world into a linear thought process is different. As such, the results will look a little different, like Sawaya’s art. But this does not imply that the result will be less effective, impactful, or beneficial.

Naysayers of this technological advance can cite examples of this being the end of human creative thought. However, for every instance where people claim the end is near and the robots will take over the world, there are numerous examples where this technology is helping create large quantities of certain items or developing mass permutations to test a theorem that would never have been possible before.

We have already seen the impact of AI and machine learning (ML) in media production. Iterative processes previously performed by hand are now done more efficiently and effectively by this technology, allowing creative artists to delve deeper into their work. Procedures that once required human labor no longer consume our human capital.

Michelangelo’s Pietà-like image from Nathan Sawaya’s exhibition.

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Sure, the human may need to go in and clean up those lines or verify the work, but that is usually a much faster task than the bulk creation. In the case of Sawaya’s work, the audience’s eye may fill in those curves, and no additional work is needed.

Our industry will always need the human creative mind. After all, the creative mind dissects the nonlinear to convert it to linear. Many aspects of machine learning give me pause. Both the replication of voices and the superimposing of faces present immense ethical dilemmas that must be addressed. Yet, as was pointed out at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Science and Technology Awards in March, there is also an ethical use of this technology.

I am excited to see where AI and ML can take our industry. Here is to those who can see nonlinear things in linear ways and help others see the world in new ways.

David Grindle

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