Velazquez’ Las Meninas: Could an AI do it better?

Tomorrow I’m going to visit Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid, and I hope to learn something about how we are designing AI machines. How can a painting from 1656 and a technology from the twenty-first century have anything in common? Well, in a sense, both address the problem of subjective and objective reality, perspectives on the world and on memory. Diego Velazquez would have been an outstanding AI ethicist!

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Gilles Deleuze and Martin Heidegger. One thinks art a great act of resistance, the other an act of destruction. They can’t both be right. Right?

The recent BBC revisiting of the history of art – Civilisations – is fascinating for its juxtaposition against the 1969 predecessor by Kenneth Clark. The new version tries to be genuinely global, post-imperial, and generally woke, so to speak. However, it doesn’t quite get to the philosophy of the creative act, the artistic imperative. The series grapples with consequences and politics, with religion and hierarchy, but not really with any philosophy of art, or questions of meaning. The interpretations of Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuzes, while diametrically opposed in some ways, are illuminating on the subject.

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Carl Schmitt: Brilliant thinker, but he was a Nazi. So there’s that.

The concept of political theology describes the theological genealogy of political legitimacy, the validation or justification of power over others in the equitable establishment of order, and the protection of freedom. As an idea, it is associated with Carl Schmitt, one of what Yvonne Stewart called ‘Hitler’s Philosophers’, an intellectual inheritance tainted by his association with and support for the Nazi party. Nevertheless, as an abstract concept, political theology helps us to deconstruct the nature of power, and trace its origins in legitimacy and the development of political order. Because as we have seen technology embeds politics, particularly and more aggressively as automation and AI proliferate, it has become important to consider whether technology itself has some divine provenance in its human construction.