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Of Art, Patterns & Memes- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Of Art, Patterns & Memes- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD.

Memetic Barium & Pattern Recognition

Memetic barium is a term coined by Bruce. It is a tool for tracing ideas. It has a light and dark side.

The light side is seeing if your ideas are visible in the world which can be gratifying if you’re feeling like a lonely voice crying out into the wilderness.

The dark side is when copyists steal your work without attribution.

We predict that AI large language models (LLMs) will find fertile ground in tracing stolen ideas and intellectual property violations because of their enormous knowledge base of written material.

The paradox is that LLMs will also be good at stealing ideas and we’re already seeing evidence of this.

Psychology & Physics


Nancy and I have a theory, highly biased, that everything in the human sphere of experience is rooted in some combination of psychology and physics.

In a previous blog from 2020, we brought up a concept that combines the two, at least metaphorically. We believe there is reason to bring it up again, driven by a combination of factors.

Aside: Almost anything interesting is driven by “a combination of factors,” or as they say in medicine, “multiply determined.”

Memetic Barium


We present to you the concept of memetic barium, conceived and coined by Bruce years ago.

This will take some explanation.

Barium is one of the 92 naturally occurring chemical elements. It is #56 on a scale that ranks them by the number of protons in their nuclei, the so-called “atomic number.”

It is a soft silvery metal, though rarely seen in this form because it is highly reactive and likes to combine with other elements.

If it were a person, it would always be in a relationship.

It was discovered in 1774 and isolated in pure form in 1808.

If it were musical, it would bridge the Classical and Romantic eras,


Known Since Antiquity By Artists


Its compounds were known in antiquity, for at least a thousand years BCE.

The Han dynasty used barium copper silicate as a pigmenting agent to create what came to be known as Han purple and Han blue.

Art always seems to get there first.

Medieval alchemists were fascinated by barium compounds as well, as a certain kind of stone called a “Bologna stone” (baryte = barium sulfate) would glow for years if exposed to light, a kind of light battery.

It remained largely a chemical curiosity for at least a century until the advent of X-rays.

Starting around 1910, it began to be used in radiographic (X-ray) imaging.

It turns out that barium sulfate is excellent at absorbing X-rays because of its density and low toxicity. It works well for imaging the digestive tract because it does not dissolve in the fluids present and does not accumulate in the body.


Mapping The Territory


Barium sulfate (often just called barium) is a kind of tracking agent, allowing physicians to map out the terrain of the gastrointestinal tract.



Barium X-ray image of oesophagus (gullet) showing possible malignancy



This is the first half of the memetic barium story.

The second half is memetics.



The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins (1941 – ) on a suggestion from Nicholas Humphrey (1943 – ) an English neuropsychologist based at Cambridge University who, among other pursuits, studied gorillas in Rwanda with Dian Fossey.

A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture. It is like a gene in that it carries information that enables its reproduction. It can mutate, evolve, or become corrupted in the process of reproduction.

Unlike genetic information, it does not require mating for transmission.

Memes can rub off. They can be transmitted through the air, through the airwaves, or through the Internet.

In a series of blog posts at the end of 2022, we framed art as a form of communication and language, which ties in with memetics.

Art is infectious, more literally than one might imagine.


Memetic Barium


The idea of “memetic barium” came from Bruce while at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in the 1990s. Like many scientific discoveries, it came about by accident.

Bruce had written a position paper on using computers to generate scientific hypotheses from incomplete evidence. Because he was steeped in the unique scientific culture of the SFI, he had adopted particular turns of phrase that were endemic to that place.

About a year after writing the paper, a solicitation came from a US government granting agency displaying some of Bruce’s very particular language.

He figured the probability of accidentally producing that language was about the same as a tornado passing through a junkyard and producing an operable Model T automobile, so the conclusion was that people at the granting agency had read Bruce’s paper.

A highly traceable form of useful and legal emulation had been discovered. 


Model T Automobile



The turns of phrase in the paper were a kind of non-chemical barium, a tracking agent that allowed an observer to infer a pathway of information.

Bruce’s memes could be traced by following the particular wordings in a paper, a memetic tracker. Hence memetic barium. A physical metaphor for a psychological phenomenon.

Does the idea of memetic barium have any uses?

At first, just like barium, it was a curiosity and a good story to tell at parties, but more recently it has shown up in software used to detect plagiarism.

Computers are now sufficiently fast and have enough memory that they can store a large number of phrases or other patterns and quickly look for suspicious matches. Large media companies use such software to detect infringement issues in text, audio, and video.


Artificial Intelligence


Even more recently it has shown up in software to detect works written by artificial intelligence (AI), particularly using the package ChatGPT created by the company OpenAI.

This is of concern to teachers at all levels, as this AI can write convincing essays on a large variety of topics and thousands of students have quickly taken advantage of this. It can also create artwork and music and pass the bar exam.

ChatGPT and the subject of AI has exploded in the collective consciousness in the last few weeks, a textbook case of memetic virality—extremely rapid transmission and reproduction of an idea.

Not only is everyone talking about it, but other recently common ideas such as blockchain or cryptocurrency have faded into the background with astonishing rapidity as ChatGPT consumes all of the oxygen in the room, a kind of phase transition.

Nancy went in to see what all the fuss was about and she found ChatGPTs output to be underwhelming.

The software has been called an “automated mansplainer,” producing cogent but bland output that has no consideration whatsoever for the particularities of the audience.

Because of this lack of consideration, it comes across as incontinent and inconsiderate. It can create something that looks nutritious, but incorporates no knowledge of someone’s metaphorical digestive tract, a kind of Junk Food for the Soul.


Junk Food on the Brain



For months, we have debated whether to approach the subject of AI and its effects on art and science. It is large and controversial and our blog audience might rather let sleeping dogs lie, let alone running and snarling ones.





So we thought we’d gently prod it with an eleven foot pole, as we wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot one.


Peter Norvig’s Lecture


In May of 2014, Bruce went to a guest lecture at the University of California, Santa Cruz given by Dr. Peter Norvig, then the research director at Google. The lecture was about computers being able to “read” text and what was involved to make them capable of doing that.

The lecture was extremely disappointing. Not Dr. Norvig’s experience or delivery or intellect, all of which were top-notch, but rather the topic itself.

It turned out the best known way to make a computer be better at recognizing patterns in language was just to brute force give it more and more data. More examples to work from. No sophisticated connections or language theories or architectures of meaning.

Just boatloads of data generating correlations. These symbols are found next to those symbols, at larger and larger scales.

Perhaps this was what was to be expected from a lecture titled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data.”

In the nine years since then, the research world has doubled down on Peter’s observations. Computers are faster, data has grown many-fold, software has new tools.

What does digesting all of this data mean?

It means that modern AI is a kind of wisdom of crowds, which can be very valuable in certain contexts.

The patterns of expression of enormous numbers of people on enormous numbers of occasions is distilled into machine expressions. It is the epitome of generic.

AI can now generate grammatically correct prose that looks like it was written by a human. Same for art and music.



Crowd with superimposed emoticons


Artificial Intelligence & Emulation


AI has shown itself to be capable of mass-producing bland memes because of its basis in emulation.

It can spawn unlimited offspring, like a swarm of infertile insects similar to the sorts that are introduced to mate with and neutralize crop-damaging populations. Digital memetic locusts.

But maybe we are the insects being diluted.

AI takes advantage of something we have discussed at length many times, namely combinatorics.

It combines elements from many different sources in a variety of ways to achieve its result.  It begs the question,


“If creativity is just the act of recombining existing things in new ways, are computers capable of creativity?”


Ultimately, the nature of creativity is being brought into debate, a debate we wholeheartedly participate in.

People who have looked at AI generated paintings find that they become less interesting the more closely they are examined. The individuality of any particular artist does not survive close inspection, because AI is in a sense anti-individual.


The Prescience Of Asimov


Back when computers were a novelty and the size of buildings, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) wrote a trilogy called The Foundation (written 1942 – 1953), about the demise of a vast future empire spanning an entire galaxy.

He was profoundly inspired by Gibbons and Thucydides in his efforts.

In the novels, he postulated a new science called psychohistory, using mathematics and computers to determine the collective behavior of billions of billions of people, a statistics of sociology.

The “generalness” of this approach is akin to the generalness of AI. Given enough people, there was essentially no free will of the whole civilization.




Milky Way galaxy



In The Foundation, the course of history is altered by an individual who did not fit the general statistical model, known as “The Mule,” who has a special power to change the emotions of other people.

Using a device called the “Visi-sonor,” a combination audio and visual instrument, he changes the course of empire by manipulating emotions.

It is essentially an artistic instrument wielded by an individual that confounds the statistical sweep of history.


Art and its power to influence emotions is a force to be reckoned with.


We submit that creativity is not so easily dismissed.



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


Take Your Art Somewhere New- Nab your copy of our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation. 

There are lots of concepts from exclusive exercises Nancy developed for the Artist’s Journey Masterclass in the book, including: Combinatorics, Zero To One, Six Maquettes, and more.

Get your copy HERE.

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