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Published in IT World
May 09, 2006

Programming a Picasso

"Computers are useless", Picasso once said, "they can only give you answers."

In one sense I would agree - and indeed go further - in my tongue-in-cheek condemnation of computers, than Picasso did. In another, more artistic sense, I would disagree with the great man.

First the agreement. It is not just that computers can only give us answers. They also suffer from a complete inability to differentiate between a question and an answer.

To a computer, it is all just bits. Programs, data...it is all the same stuff. The computer just reads bits of data and uses them as instructions to change other bits of data. There are no questions, no answers, just a mindless automaton, going round and round the same well worn paths, over and over again.

Viewed from this perspective, it is hard to imagine anything less interesting than a computer to an artistic mind such as that of Picasso. From this perspective, computers are indeed useless machines...

Except for one critically important fact. The inability of a computer to distinguish a question from an answer is a great strength. It means that we humans get to paint our formulations of questions and answers onto the white canvas of mere bits that a computer provides. First we craft ways of treating questions as bits. Then we craft ways of treating answers as bits. Then we craft a third set of bits, namely, the algorithm to turn the questions into answers.

Suitably draped in these three layers of human-created bit orderings, computers proceed - unbeknownst to themselves - to solve problems for us.

The key word here is "craft". We humans have to find ways to craft the questions (input), ways to craft the answers (output) and ways in which the questions can be turned into answers (algorithm). Crafting ways to represent the questions and the answers are the easy bits (if you will excuse the pun). The hard part is crafting the algorithm.

It is in this area - the algorithm - that I think Picasso would have had great fun if the circumstances of his life had been different. The reason being, I cannot think of a medium more pregnant with possibilities, more laden with powerful and beautiful abstractions, than algorithm design.

This is not a dry endeavor of mechanical activity. A good computer program is the result of a furious fight with the world of abstractions. A tussle that can and does result in beautiful creations. True works of art in my opinion...

Except for one critically important fact. These works of art cannot be visualized, cannot be touched, cannot be heard. To appreciate them involves digging out the abstractions through the hostile medium of the written word - computer programs.

To paraphrase Picasso, "Words are useless. They can only give you computer programs."

Perhaps we would be better off if we started with pictures rather than words?