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Leonardo and AI

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This week we are reposting some of our most popular articles of 2019, starting with this fascinating piece by Dr Sandra Piesik on Leonardo + AI.

Coinciding with the 500th Anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, this article explores connections between Leonardo’s approach to understanding people and nature with the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI).

Picture: Attributed to Francesco Melzi, A portrait of Leonardo, c.1515-18 Credit: Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Leonardo’s curiosity about nature and man, combined with scientific inquiry, led to some remarkable inventions that are part of our daily life today. Contemporary man HOMO TECHNICUS is exploring technology in various dimensions. One of these dimensions is aimed at creating a new relationship between people and machines seen in the attempt to create machines that mimic us. Artificial intelligence has entered our lives unnoticed, and as a society, we do not understand the full implications of the technological developments taking place right now, and over which we no longer have control.

This article will reflect on HOMO VITRUVIANUS meeting HOMO ARTIFICIALIS through the choices which we are facing today in the context of the existential threats of climate change and artificial intelligence.

Recently, I had a chance to listen to Michele Farmer, Director of Central England at The Prince’s Trust, on her experiences of working with young people. Whilst unlocking human potential is an inspiring and rewarding process, young people are, at times, feeling confused, not only because of political and global events, such as climate change, but also because of our changing relationship with technology and the messages it communicates. Our own relationships with family and friends are also changing, for better or for worse thanks to technological innovations.

In this “age of chaos”, we are also experiencing the quiet and persistent presence of artificial intelligence AI, which entered our lives almost unnoticed and unregulated.  It is not too late to ask questions and explore benefits and drawbacks. Where are we going? Quo Vadis? Juxtaposing innovations in artificial intelligence with one of the greatest innovators of all times, Leonardo da Vinci, on the 500th anniversary of his death may help to find possible answers to the Quo Vadis? Question.

Emma Dickens in her introduction to “The Da Vinci Notebooks” pointed out that by freeing him of the label of ‘genius’, we are able to realise that he embodies the potential scope of a human being. He makes us confront what we have the potential to be.[1]

Curiosity and anatomy

I am in awe of Leonard’s curiosity, because the desire to satisfy this curiosity must have been the driver to discover and explore through the medium he knew best – drawings. In the words of Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings for Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle, Leonardo used his drawings to think – to explore ideas and to understand how things work.

A Royal Collection Trust member of staff in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

One of the most pioneering discoveries of Leonardo was in the field of anatomy and in understanding how our bodies are structured. In his late thirties he was a master of perspective and had a deep understanding of physics; his drawings of the cranium, heart, muscles and bone structures demonstrate an incredible artistry and accuracy. This understanding of our bodies from “within” is best manifested in Homo Vitruvianus, a paradigm on the proportions of the human body, which according to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80–70 BC and 15 BC) is the model of perfection and harmony.

To quote Leonardo: “And you, who say that it would be better to watch an anatomist at work than to see these drawings, you would be right, if it were possible to observe all the things which are demonstrated in a single figure, in which you, with all your cleverness will not see – because I have obtained a true a perfect knowledge through experience.”[2]

Today, we have another sense of curiosity regarding artificial intelligence or artificial life,which aims to give life to non-living things such as machines; it also aims to simulate nature including us humans – giving, in a literal sense, artificial life to a machine. In other words, studies of anatomy today are leading to the creation of artificial people HOMO ARTIFICIALIS.

In 2007, Jeff Lichtman and his team at Harvard University developed a new process to map the brain. We can have a 3D analysis of our brain, and we can also grow parts of our bodies in laboratories. In 2019, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine produced a 3D printed ear and enabled this ear to grow in biological tissue.

The questions we need to ask are to what extent our curiosity can drive medical research and to what extent this curiosity can produce machines that mimic us in every way, apart from emotions, in an unregulated legislative environment?

A digital mind and facial recognition

Leonardo was a detailed observer of people. He would categorise parts of the body, behaviours and moods, creating what could be described as a data sheet of human typologies. As he stated: “If you want to acquire facility for bearing in mind the expression of a face, first make yourself familiar with a variety of forms of heads, eyes, noses, mouth, chins, cheeks and necks and shoulders and (…)  put these noses into 10 types.”[3]  Geometry is present in Leonardo’s analysis of heads and faces, just as today a facial recognition system, a technology capable of identifying or verifying a person from a digital image is using similar geometric patterns to recognise human types.  

This technology was developed between 1964 and 1965 by Woody Bledso who, along with Helen Chan and Charles Bisson, worked on using the computer to recognize human faces. In 2006, the performance of the latest face recognition algorithms was evaluated in high-resolution face images, 3D face scans, including tests on iris images.

There is a debate taking place in the media regarding to what extent facial recognition can be used and on what moral grounds? Do we want facial recognition to be used when we go to the supermarket or to control ethnic minorities? Both are happening right now in the world of unregulated space of one person controlling another person. Facial recognition is also connected to the so called “deepfake technology” produced by Samsung’s AI research laboratories. On 24th May 2019, BBC News Reported: Mona Lisa ‘brought to life’ with deepfake AI, which enabled movement of a face that is effectively still by using 1 to 8 frames of still images pretending that someone is speaking but it is not reality. This technology is often sadly misused in a harmful way to discredit people in the public domain.

Stretching the boundaries of knowledge

Leonardo’s anatomical studies of human arms: “First draw the bones, let us say, from the arm, and put in the motor muscle from the shoulder to the elbow with all its lines” [4] were replicated in 1968 by Marvin Minsky, an American cognitive scientist who created an artificial arm, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT AI Lab. The arm had twelve joints and could be controlled by computer or via a joystick. The arm was strong enough to lift a person, yet gentle enough to embrace a child.

Artificial arms led to developments in robotics on an industrial scale, such as in the automotive industry.  Robotics and automation are changing the way we manufacture products. The International Federation of Robotics reported in 2018, that global industrial robot sales have doubled over the past five years. The World Robotics Report showed the annual sales volume of industrial robots had increased by 114 percent over the last five years (2013-2017). The sales value increased by 21 percent compared to 2016 to a new peak of US$16.2 billion in 2017.[5]

In the meantime, The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) “Report of the Global Commission on the Future of Work “ 2019, has called on governments to commit to a set of measures in order to address the challenges caused by unprecedented transformational change in the world of work, including an international governance system for digital labour platforms.[6]  The ILO emphasises that a human-centred agenda is needed for a decent work future, and estimates that 344 million jobs need to be created by 2030, in addition to the 190 million jobs needed to address unemployment today. It is not clear how many new jobs Marvin Minsky’s robotic arm will create, or whether the use of AI will create the missing 534 million jobs.

The Quo Vadis? moment on humans and machines might have come earlier in 1997 when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, lost a chess match to the Deep Blue IBM supercomputer.  After a pair of six-game chess matches. Kasparov argued that IBM had introduced some irregularities and asked for another match, but IBM declined. 

Our relationship with nature

The man versus computer chess match was an existential match.  We are also not winning another existential match: the one against climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) Climate Change and Land recent special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, provokes the international community to question once again our unsustainable relationship with nature.

Rethinking this relationship does not mean starting from zero, this is why, revisiting the historical relationship people once had with nature, in order to adapt some of the traditional principles has long been recognised by the international climate change dialogues. Why is it so important? Our past relationship with nature developed by indigenous peoples and Leonardo’s understanding of nature, was based on the power of observation. In addition to paintings and analytical drawings, one of the most compelling works of Leonardo on land and water was accomplished in the Italian Valdichiana, through a series of maps created between 1503-6, providing a holistic solution for transboundary water management across Tuscany. His vision could not be realised because of a lack of political will and today, 516 years later, we continue to discuss rather than do something about transboundary water management across Sub-Saharan Africa most probably for the same reason of lack of “political will”.

Climate change and issues with land, particularly desertification have an impact on our food production. Humans obtain more than 99.7% of their food (calories) from land.[7] The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in its 2018 Food Security & Nutrition around the World Report stated that hunger is on the rise. For the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The number of undernourished people, i.e. those facing chronic food deprivation, has increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, from around 804 million in 2016. 

There are multilateral processes to reverse land degradation and the work of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is commendable.

The AI solution to food crises is 2019 Personal Food Computer v3.0. The MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative developed robotic and AI driven computer farms that monitor and control their climate, energy use and plant growth.  There is special software called Open Agricultural Brain – which gathers this data. The AI solution for biodiversity loss is Synthetic Honey Production proposed in 2016 by Neri Oxman and The Mediated Matter Group.

AI industry efforts aimed at simulations of people and nature are not doing enough to alleviate poverty.  The question Quo Vadis? Where are you marching? In this instance is directed towards innovations that are partly diverting our dependence on productive land to build the illusion that we can become independent from the productive capacity of land and grow our food in laboratories.

Leonardo in his writings acknowledges the superiority of nature over human beings: “Nature constrained by necessity cannot act otherwise than as reason”.[8] “Though human ingenuity may make various inventions which, by the help of various machines, answer to the same end, it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting, and nothing is superfluous”.[9]

Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s work and Homo Vitruvianus can help us Homo Technicus to answer some questions that we need to continue asking on the emergence of the new type of machines created to behave like humans called Homo Artificialis,  Holding on to Leonardo’s thinking is to remember one of his most important sayings: “creation is greater than destruction” in addressing some of the most pressing existential challenges of our times.

Step inside the mind of a genius.


With a special thanks to the Royal Collection Trust and Dr Martin Clayton for a permission to use Leonardo’s images. “Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” Exhibition is on at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London until 11th October 2019

AI: More than Human exhibition is in Barbican Centre, London until 26th August 2019

LEONARDO – a digital mind. HOMO VITRUVIANUS meeting Artificial Intelligence HOMO ARTIFICIALIS. Lecture was given by Dr Sandra Piesik on 27th May 2019 in Le Murate Progetti Arte Contemporanea, Florence.

[1] Dickens, Emma “The Da Vinci Notebooks”, Profile Books 2005, p.3

[2] Dickens, Emma “The Da Vinci Notebooks”, Profile Books 2005, p.119

[3] Dickens, Emma “The Da Vinci Notebooks”, Profile Books 2005, p.83

[4] Dickens, Emma “The Da Vinci Notebooks”, Profile Books 2005, p.124



[7] Pimentel, David: Soil Erosion: A food and environmental threat

[8] Dickens, Emma “The Da Vinci Notebooks”, Profile Books 2005, p.171

[9] Dickens, Emma “The Da Vinci Notebooks”, Profile Books 2005, p.138

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Written By

Dr. Sandra Piesik is an architect, researcher, innovator, designer, artist, curator and a writer specialising in technology development and transfer of natural materials and the implementation of global sustainable legislation. Sandra is currently working towards the programmes of UNFCCC, UNCCD, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and The New Urban Agenda on implementation and adaptation of indigenous and endogenous technologies.


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