The £1 million pixel that is the future of art (or not)

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Josie Ford

But is it art?

In a former life, Feedback’s daily doings regularly took us across a windswept plaza on a university campus that, through no fault of its own, had been built in the 1960s. Adding to a general air of faded cold war chic was a huge, rusting iron sculpture on a concrete plinth, on which the words “Vorsicht! Kunst” had been graffitied in yellow paint.

This was in Germany, we perhaps should have said, but the warning to beware of art has stayed with us. We are reminded of it when we read that a Sotheby’s auction of non-fungible tokens by the crypto-artist Pak has brought in $16.8 million, including a single grey pixel that went for $1.36 million worth of Ether.

If, to you, that sounds like just words with a few numbers thrown in, then we can only assume you are not au fait with the worlds of art collection or cryptocurrency, and certainly not the uniquely important new conjunction of the two.

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The true value of art, of course, lies not in aesthetics, but in someone else not having it. This is problematic in the world of digital art, with pixels being so readily copy-and-pastable. Non-fungible tokens, digital widgets that can be added to an unfalsifiable blockchain to assert sole ownership of a digital asset, are the answer to this problem you didn’t know you had yet.

Following the sale of a gif of a flying cat in February for some $600,000, selling the rights to a single pixel represents some sort of progression, if only towards a logical singularity. “This single pixel is one of the most significant pieces of Art imo,” wrote someone who had drunk the Kool-Aid on Twitter. “The future will be very kind to the value of this piece”.

Others have been significantly less kind. Feedback is wary not only of art, but change and new things generally. We will stick for now with the stuff that looks like it will hurt if it falls on your foot – plus those couple of Rothko gouache-on-papers we have stashed behind the photocopier for a rainy day.

Moral fibre

Colin Nicholson of Stockport, UK, doesn’t say why he is receiving regular emails from a US provider of “alternative” views about health and healthcare. Mind you, seeing the unwanted emissions that fill our litter – apologies, “in-” – box, we aren’t one to cast aspersions.

Colin expresses surprise at an item highlighting the very real problem of discarded protective face masks in the environment, “due to the size of the fibres used in their manufacture – between 1mm and 10mm thickness”.

Polymer extrusion processes aren’t our strong point, but we agree that something needs to happen with a centimetre-thick fibre before it is any use against nanosized viral particles. Then again, clicking through to the site that the email links to, so you don’t have to, it seems aimed at those who would prefer to reduce viral transmission probability via a paper bag secured by a tin-foil hat. On that basis, anything will do.

The real Sean Carroll

In our item last week on our theory that people with the same name are actually all the same person, we missed the example under our nose.

We discovered this when a colleague wrote in agitation querying the publicity shot for a New Scientist pixelated happening on the origins of life with scientist Sean Carroll. “My god he’s aged suddenly – and we’re still using the more familiar clean shaven pic of him on the Big Ideas in Physics page,” they wrote.

Indeed, we see that this younger version of Sean Carroll is speaking next week on “How time works”, so we shall watch with interest for clues. Alternatively, it might be that these aren’t the same Sean Carroll. Then we recall that one, or perhaps both, of the Sean Carrolls is a noted proponent of the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory. Perhaps they can tell us which branch of the multiverse we are in, unless it’s both at the same time.

DIY AI

Deep Learning-based Online Alternative Product Recommendations at Scale” is a preprint that was just posted on the arXiv server, with its authors based at the US’s largest home improvement retailer. “We’ve reached the stage of AI ubiquity where I’m just like “cool, makes sense” when seeing a deep learning paper published by researchers at Home Depot”, tweets Miles Brundage, head of policy research at OpenAI.

Nothing wrong with a do-it-yourself approach, after all. Pausing only to note the appearance of late writer and literary critic Rebecca West on the author list, Feedback congratulates the researchers on how their algorithm combines textual analysis of product data with historical customer behaviour patterns to improve purchase completion rates by 12 per cent. If you liked that product recommendation algorithm, you’ll love this one.

Solar intruders

A product we do like the look of is the Solar Animal Repeller pointed out to us by reader Chris Webster. With the sun’s activity due to hit a periodic peak shortly, it is as well to be prepared for whatever heat-hardened critters coronal mass ejections may fling our way.

The Home Depot offers quite a few that are also effective against gophers, chipmunks and groundhogs. Just the thing to ward off intruders to Feedback’s stationery cupboard, along with that supersized pack of snake glue traps. Or is that the product recommendation algorithm talking?

Got a story for Feedback?

You can send stories to Feedback by email at feedback@newscientist.com. Please include your home address. This week’s and past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.



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