Irony, Sarcasm and Machines

I’ve been taking the long commute on my bike the last couple of weeks as I take a short break from running. I’m riding further East toward the freeways and then taking the commuter/walking path in a big loop back to the Willamette River and into downtown. It’s about 17 miles, mostly flat and fast if you want to drop the hammer (when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail – an adage I thought of as I was trying to maintain 20mph + on my commute and sweating profusely in a driving rain).

There has been a lot of controversy about the homeless in Portland and recently (last Fall) there was a effort by the city to break up homeless camps along the Springwater corridor.

Well… it turns out most of those structures decamped East onto the 205 path where they’re now firmly established between the path and freeway boundary wall.  On the West side of the 205 path is a neighborhood, and in one of those neighborhoods is a front yard garden….errr, the kind of garden created with “found objects”. The objects in this case are bicycle wheels (sans tires), sheet metal formed into flowers 5 feet in diameter, pots of dead flowers, and an excavated (and empty) koi pond all of which is surrounded by a 4 foot tall chain link fence.

The pièce de résistance of this garden is a spray painted white bicycle frame, fork and handlebar situated in the center of the yard.

I’ve stopped twice on different days to take pictures with my phone of this garden, but when looking at them when I get into the office, they just don’t seem that interesting. The bicycle frame, fork and handlebars with the tireless wheels mounted on the bird bath is my favorite piece and yet when I snap it – I inadvertently get the late 90’s Honda parked in the driveway – and it immediately looks less than artistic.

And the idea that I can’t seem to shake is that my interpretation of this found object garden and the artistic merits of the bicycle frame, fork and handlebar will in no way be distinguished from Pablo Picasso’s Bull’s Head. Though the artist’s intent was the same, one is a junk garden and one is “astonishingly complete” metamorphosis.  Furthermore,  these two pieces of found object art will be indistinguishable in importance by a neural net.

The same way that a child cannot yet process irony or sarcasm, a deep learning algorithm will not be able to make nuanced interpretations of art.

As I slid my phone back into my pocket, heaved my backpack onto my shoulders and clipped into my pedals, I had the distinct feeling that our future robot utopia is going to be decidedly less… fun.