Ali Momeni lives and works at the intersection of art and technology. From this vantage point he has made music from insects and contemplated how the humble Oreo has, so far, saved us from the robot uprising.
It’s an interesting place but certainly not a new one. Think of movies. They are a perfect example of how art and technology intersect. But it is hardly the only way those two entities feed each other in this world, where being intersectional is as hip as it gets, even if there is no easy academic road to making a career of it.
Momeni, an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, will be one of two dozen panelists (and one of four on the “Asking Questions” panel itself) at Princeton University’s “Living At the Intersection” symposium on Thursday and Friday, April 12 and 13, at the Friend Center. The event runs on Thursday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The symposium opens with a performance of “There Might Be Others,” a collaborative dance and music performance. It continues the following day with four panel sessions and a keynote lecture by sculptor and fiber artist Janet Echelman.
Joining Momeni at the symposium will be moderators Jeff Whetstone, Maria Garlock, and Jeff Snyder (all professors at Princeton), and filmmaker Mark DeChiazza; as well as panelists Amy LaViers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Forrest Meggers, Alice Tang, Aynsley Vandenbroucke, Rebecca Napolitano, Sigrid Adriaenssens, Graham Burnett, Martha Friedman, Rebecca Lazier, Naomi Leonard, and Dan Trueman of Princeton University;
And Alessandro Beghini of Owings & Merrill; Taeyoon Choi of the School for Poetic Computation; Cassandre Joseph of STREB Extreme Action (tentative); Bill Washabaugh of Hypersonic; artist Douglas Repetto; Jingwen Zhu of Wearable Media; Doris Sung of USC; Alessio Franci of l’Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico; Cori Kresge of the Stephen Petronio (Dance) Company; and Kayhan Ozcimder of Mathworks.
The entire symposium is free and open to the public. Visit cst.princeton.edu/symposium-2018/panels.
Momeni was born in Iran in 1975 and came to the United States in 1988. His, he says, is a “classic immigrant story.” His parents, both educators, fled a war-ravaged region for a better life and wanted their son to be a doctor or a lawyer.
“Well, not a lawyer,” he says. “A lawyer would have been a failure.”
Growing up from adolescence in the Philadelphia area, Momeni always loved music but took loads of science and math classes to follow his parents’ hopes that he would be a doctor. He earned a dual bachelor’s in physics and music at Swarthmore College and completed his doctoral degree in music composition, improvisation, and performance with computers from the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at UC Berkeley.
Though he says he had intended to stay in academia, Momeni ventured to Europe for a while after college. He lived in Paris to be in a place where the state supported and fostered artists and musicians like him. He was an independent composer, fascinated with making music through technology.
After a few years he landed a job at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as an assistant art professor. There he got interested in fields like robotics and artificial intelligence, but his heart was still with art, particularly art with sound. One of his projects during this time was “Flying In Tune,” in which Momeni managed to sync up the hum of mosquito wings to make a rather hauntingly beautiful love song.
It is one of the cornerstones of Momeni’s perception of art — it doesn’t have to be stuck in the oils, like 80 percent of art created these days.
In 2011 he went to Carnegie Mellon, and in a few months he will be leaving academe to work in the commercial world. He will be working for a company that is trying to apply robotics and artificial intelligence/machine learning to the human experience.
If that sounds a little abstract, don’t worry. Momeni knows what it means, even if he’s not certain where it will take him. Then again, that’s what makes life at the intersection of art and tech so much fun for him. One simple-seeming problem yields an endless-seeming set of envelopes that open up onto new questions and problems.
“For decades, million-dollar robots have been trying to figure out how to twist open an Oreo cookie,” Momeni says. And indeed, it seems there has been a concerted effort over the past 20 years to make robot companions for people, to help them live better lives with a machine that could do mundane tasks. But, the ol’ twist-n-dunk of this particular sandwich cookie has managed to stump the robots and the people trying to teach them basic toddler-level acts.
These seemingly mundane tasks are enormous computational problems in the robotic world, Momeni says. Machines don’t yet have near the capacity to learn how to recognize, handle, or touch an object according to the tasks at hand, much less how to build from their mistakes.
These kinds of challenges are things Momeni says he has always gravitated towards; taking something that sounds impossible and finding ways to actually do it. Or, if not do it, chip away at it. The chasm, of course, will never be fully filled, at least not in his lifetime. But it can be narrowed a little at a time until people can teach machines how to make omelets for everyone instead of scrambled eggs.
“Interdisciplinarianism,” as Momeni would call it, is its own field, charged with bringing these tasks into the realm of doable. And it is drawing “intersectional” people who have backgrounds in advanced tech and creative thinking as well as in art and expression. Again, it is like the movies, which Momeni calls “the opera of our times.” In cinema, he says, the ones who leap out and become bigger than the field — Stanley Kubrick, for example — usually have strong backgrounds in something outside of film. Filmmakers like Kubrick or James Cameron have advanced technology by trying to make their films experiential in a new way, and that, Momeni says, is how interdisciplinarianism works.
The holdup for forging this brave new frontier, Momeni says, is, in part, on the academic world. Academe tends to be grounded in traditions. That’s the charitable way of putting it. It can also be said to be stuck in the that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it mire.
“There are a lot of barriers to creating new disciplines,” Momeni says. Universities tend to put new disciplines under existing departments, for one thing. That, he says, creates redundancies. Add to that that new disciplines are not yet established enough to have peer-reviewed journals, plus the fact that in the collegiate ecosystem someone has to have a Ph.D. in something to confer a Ph.D. to someone in that same area.
Momeni gives it a simple comparison to a chicken and egg.
And as if this weren’t enough to stall progress like a cookie-flummoxed robot housemaid, interdisciplinary studies at colleges are filled with, well, college-aged people.
“You’re dealing with 18 and 19-year-olds,” Momeni says. “They don’t have a disciplinary background. And they don’t have any discipline.”
They certainly don’t have interdisciplinary backgrounds that would foster furthering an interdisciplinary field, he says. Ultimately, what usually happens is that everyone ends up dabbling in several areas, but no single area gets furthered by much, if at all.
So the answer to opening and dunking cookies might just be found in the business world where Momeni is headed; at companies that want to find ways to marry technology with the human experience. And, by the way, the gaming industry is absolutely the cutting edge in this interdisciplinary world, Momeni says. So much about gaming is state-of-the-art, as so much deals with massive computational needs and the demands of machine learning. All of which can be applied to solve its own issues (think cryptocurrency and its need for prohibitive computational power) and to the human interactive experience.
“I’m a big science fiction fan,” Momeni says. “I love seeing how our lives are coming closer to science fiction every day.”