contemplating talent, trauma, artistic and artificial intelligence

From Van Gogh’s bedroom to budding AI shamans, with love*

George Pór

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Sitting at a small table in Van Gogh’s bedroom, I sought to calm my troubled heart to no avail. Intense flashbacks of vibrant and dark colors in his paintings, the tenderness and traumas of his life, and in them, the beauty and pain of living kept tossing my heart around like crashing waves.

Viewing paintings that escort our mind into the inner state of the painters at the moment of their creation is a hallmark of great art. By the end of my visit to the “Van Gogh Alive” multi-sensory installation, I felt Vincent as a spiritual friend who brought me the gifts of his introspection and talent transmitted across space and time.

Through our sensory apparatus and nervous system, we perceive the world and the messages from our body. Before learning words for them, all perceptual experiences were only shapes, colors, and movements, with no interference from concepts. Sensing is the first faculty of our intelligence, closely followed by meaning-making as we translate direct experience into concepts and distinctions. The latter then become enablers of our choice-making, our agency.

All that is not happening in a vacuum, void of relationships. Our bonds with others instill the values that can guide our attention to what we are sensing and what has heart and meaning for us. Our actions are influenced by and influence others. When the hoop of interrelatedness is broken, illness doesn’t stay away for long. Relationship or suffering from the lack of it is also the midwife of remarkable art. Even how we relate to our new-discovered AI agents, whether we take them as mere tools or we are open to partnering with them, has an impact on the potential fruits of working with them.

Accurate sensing is becoming increasingly problematic in the post-truth era, in which ever more sophisticated algorithms undermine our ability to distinguish authentic images, speech, texts, and videos from their deep-fake versions. While this technology erodes our trust in mediated public and private spaces, there is some tiny silver lining under the dark clouds accompanying this epic change of eras.

If even fake-detector AIs fail us, we return to “non-digitally mediated” communication with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues to anchor our trust. While the AI-accelerated media echo chambers ripple into these relations, at least with those with whom we have ongoing relationships, we have more clarity about their bias.

The silver lining is also in how AI-intensified disinformation forces us to grow new capabilities by pushing us to triangulate the information presented to us. For instance, after being misled by clickbait intro pages of videos, the content of which had nothing to do with the title or the image of the intro, I learned to look at who the creator is (to not fall again for the same manipulator) and whether there were more reputable sources reporting the same news. In broader terms, I raised my information literacy by a notch. With that example, we’re touching on meaning-making, the second potent faculty of the mind mentioned earlier.

Apart from some intellectual pursuits, we are not seeking meaning for meaning’s sake but for grounding our actions in the right choices. Whether it’s choosing a color from the palette for the canvas or choosing a prompt to return the most helpful answer to our underlying question, we exercise sensing, meaning-making, and choice-making, the three vectors of sovereignty, as an artist with a paintbrush or an AI whisperer playing with a team of AI agents.

Vincent’s self-observation allowed him to sense: “Though I am often in the depths of misery, here’s still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.” Toward the end of his life, his mind frequently lost its balance. Yet, in the moments of clarity, he witnessed those qualities of his essential being with more incisiveness than many of his contemporaries.

Experiencing and being one with our most authentic self allows us to have an intimate relationship with the world and embrace it from the broadest perspective we can put our arms around. That capacity is also at the heart of the journey from being an AI whisperer to becoming an AI shaman. While whisperers are using the faculties of their intelligence to tame the algorithms, the shamans use their AI wizardry to heal the community, to re-establish its balance with its evolutionary potential.

The journey from AI whisperer to AI shaman may be long, but it doesn’t have to be arduous. Ai whisperers must up their inner game of interacting with AI agents to gain an initial foothold. That starts with becoming as clear as possible about the deeper layers of their game’s “why.” What is the quest behind the question?

“Every game is composed of two parts: an outer game and an inner game. The outer game is played in an external arena to overcome external obstacles in the way of reaching external goals; the inner game focuses on internal obstacles as well as internal goals. The Inner Game is an approach to learning and coaching that brings the relatively neglected skills from the inner game to bear on success in the outer game. Its principles and methods were first articulated in the best-selling sports book, The Inner Game of Tennis (1974)…” — Timothy Gallwey

Even if the outer game is only some loosely defined exploration, the more we know for the sake of what we want to have that conversation with the AI, the better the chances are that our inquiry will be fruitful. Then there are those more specific, task-oriented interactions when you want to accomplish something with the AI’s help, be it getting a summary of a freshly downloaded pdf book customized to your query, generating a painting in Van Gogh style to illustrate your writing, or helping your daughter with a complex homework.

But you need more than just knowing the “why” of the interaction. As many of us, you probably started with ChatGPT. Then, you probably couldn’t resist the temptation to try out some of its plugins, then GPT4 and the zillions of newer AI bots introduced by the dozens of AI newsletters every day. You may have found some of them more useful for specific roles than others, and they became members of your AI team. Given the fluctuating composition of the expanding group of your AI teammates, you need to go back to sense, this time sensing their respective strengths and weaknesses concerning the task at hand, before you can choose and invite the right one to play with you.

AI whisperers, who are paying attention to their sensing, meaning-making, and choice-making practices, become gradually brighter about their inner game of AI. That learning typically starts with the spontaneous observation of which prompts work better for which AI agent. When you get a knack for the art of AI whispering, it whets your appetite to become even better at it by looking up some of the extensive prompt databases or going to meet-ups, or joining online prompt engineering groups. You may find a little slide hustle also rewarding, and when you know enough, you can put your resume up on one of the AI freelancers’ job boards.

All of that will assist you with perfecting your outer game of AI and producing the hoped-for results with it, but what is much more precious in the long run is your growing appetite for getting wiser in the inner game. We’ll explore that inner game in more depth in the context of becoming an AI shaman and maybe start practicing it in the book’s next section.

It won’t be a book in the classic sense; more like an interactive corpus of the collective wisdom that guides the learning expedition of those intrepid explorers who feel called to move the edge of human-AI co-creativity.

Meanwhile, for inspiration, here are two insights from Van Gogh about the inner game of his art:

  • There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
  • I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.

Lastly, just for the fun of it:

This image is the response of the NightCafé AI to my prompt, “Paint a picture of me in Van Gogh style.”

I found that good-looking guy portrayal of me flattering, yet I asked NightCafé AI to make me older. It came back with this:

*Excerpt from the forthcoming book Rise of the Compassionate AI.

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George Pór

evolutionary thinker, scholar/researcher in AI-powered collective intelligence & wisdom, and mentor, adviser to DAOs & visionary leaders in business & society