Research Statement in Plain English

 

I have condensed the initial ideas for the research statement into as plain English as I can. This may help me see what lies ahead more clearly and explain what I am doing. After all, if I were not able to talk about the subject in an accessible way, what would it say about my understanding of it?

 

The Genesis and Proliferation of Natural and Virtual Monsters

The ways by which things come about in different areas of life often appear to bear little resemblance to one another. But if you look closely enough you can see that they often share processes that, regardless of the what, where and when, give comparable results if not the same: biology and art are no exceptions despite their very great differences. I am looking at correlations between how large animals evolved – the number of body parts, their shape and the way they are put together – and the creation of the mixed up creatures described in art, religious texts, mythologies and other imaginings. There are strong connections between the ways these real and imaginary animals evolved and spread in nature and across cultures. My research statement will explore the similarities between these processes and their conditions helping to understand how the digital world might influence the creation of future composite mythological beings.

Throughout the time humans have been on this planet, the overwhelming majority of imagined creatures have been what could be called intuitive forms. That is to say, they come readily to mind, eating, breathing, moving and living emotional lives, much in the way we do. However, with the arrival of non-living mechanisms such as computers and their programmes the question arises, what forms might such artificial creators bring forth? Virtual or real, these new organisms might not be readily recognised. as such by we humans. They might well be described as non-intuitive creatures, in other words not coming easily to mind, alien.

A very long time ago, over 500 million years in fact, the world was a very different place. The environment was changing radically, opening out new opportunities for early complex life to evolve new forms or body plans. This was the time of the Cambrian explosion when genetics and the oxygenation of Earth were great driving forces that led to the rise of totally new animal body plans and ways of living. Free movement, predation, heads with sensory organs were formed during this time. Moving forward half a billion years, the world was still changing but in different ways. Ice Age glaciers had long receded and gradually people started to live in large cities leaving their old hunter gathered ways of living, embracing the new sophisticated urban centres in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the Indus basin and the Far East. This changing social environment also brought with it opportunities in which different ideas and beliefs could come together and forge new mythological beings. They grew in number, variety and extension during the Early Bronze Age, promoted by ever greater and finer divisions of labour, growing trade and the invention of writing. These composite creatures like chimaeras and sphinxes breathed, reproduced and lived emotional lives much as we do. These two means of creation share a great deal in fundamental processes despite their very obvious differences.

Today we are on the threshold of another new world, one we share with machines. Machines affect us profoundly and it seems reasonable to predict that their intelligence may also, in the not too distant future, conjure new mythological beings. Present day conditions too can be seen as corresponding to those of the Cambrian and Bronze Age. However, the internal processes of artificial intelligence are rapidly becoming a mystery even to those that create the programmes. If artificial intelligences were to one day create their own mythological beings, what form might they take? One could say that the old familiar creatures are intuitive to our sensibilities but would we even recognise the new non-intuitive artifices as virtual or living organisms? How would we react to them, with fear, revulsion, wonder, understanding or even empathy?