The art of artificial intelligence
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The art of artificial intelligence

Rabbi Mendy Kaminker experiments with AI for Chabad calendar

It is the eve of the new year, and Times Square is packed with chasidim dancing amid the bright lights, and — if you live in Hackensack or nearby — they may be headed toward your mailbox.

The dancing chasidim are the October art for Chabad of Hackensack’s calendar. Like any Jewish wall calendar, it includes holidays and candle lighting times; it includes advertisements for neighborhood physicians and birthdays and yahrzeits of community members; and like the other calendars printed by ChabadHouseCalendars.com, it includes birthdays and yahrzeits for the various Lubavitcher rebbes (and the most recent rebbetzin, who also is the last one).

But what makes the calendar of interest beyond the 07601 zip code is the art, which was created by Rabbi Mendy Kaminker, who heads Chabad of Hackensack, using the latest “artificially intelligent” art creation software, which synthesized the pictures based on his written prompts.

“I started seeing all kinds of unbelievable pictures on Twitter” of AI-generated art, Rabbi Kaminker said. “I was fascinated. It was unbelievable.

Rabbi Mendy Kaminker

“I spent a lot of time thinking about what you could do with this because it was so fascinating to me. And then I thought, hey, we’re doing this calendar. Why don’t we use this to create art for the calendar?”

Last year, he commissioned an artist for the calendar’s illustrations; the year before he used photographs.

His wife, Shterna, came up with the idea of creating images in the style of famous artists.

But it turned out that it wasn’t as easy as just typing “Chassidim dancing in Times Square in the style of Van Gogh.”

“It took a tremendous amount of trial and error,” Rabbi Kaminker said. “I spent many, many hours trying to figure out the exact prompt, what you’re asking the AI to create. Sometimes for one artwork, I had to write the same thing in like 50 ways until I got something closer to what I wanted. And then I start working off that.”

For December and Chanukah, he wanted to add a menorah to a 19th century painting, “Girl with Peaches” by Valentin Serov. “It took me hours and hundreds of tries to get it right. It was absolutely painful,” he said.

He had come up against a major flaw in this year’s model of art generators. They lack any understanding of the three-dimensional world and spatial positioning. So the software would generate something that looked somewhat like a menorah, but also somewhat like something that might otherwise appear in a 19th century Russian painting. And that never turned out to be something with eight candles set at equal height.

Rabbi Kaminker sifted through dozens of images of non-kosher menorahs the program produced. In the end, he settled for an image with two candles of different heights, which could, he reasoned, “represent the first night of Chanukah with the shamash and the first candle. That wasn’t perfect, but that was the best I was able to get.”

Had he been working with a real artist, “You would ask any person in the United States they should know what a menorah looks like,” he said. And even if they didn’t, you could show them a picture of a menorah and they would understand what it was, and how to include it in a painting. AIs, however, to the extent that they can be said to think, think differently.

And then there is the problem of how the software came to know what it knows, the shape of an apple, the style of Van Gogh, the look of a chasid. It did this by imbibing a tremendous number of web page with images and associated text. (Rabbi Kaminker used the Midjourney software; a similar but open-source project, Stable Diffusion, says it drew from 2.3 billion images collected from the internet.)

Unfortunately, some non-negligible portion of images labeled as “Jew” on the internet were posted by antisemites. Which means that Midjourney is at least a little bit antisemitic.

“If you tell the computer to create rabbis, you’re going to mostly get people with long noses that look like cartoons. Using the word Jewish almost always would pop up some long noses, so we had to find creative ways to work around that,” he said.

Rabbi Kaminker faced another challenge when designing the images: He wanted them all to reflect the theme of the calendar: “hakhel.”

“Hakhel” means to gather, in Hebrew, and refers to the commandment in Deuteronomy for the king in Jerusalem to read from a Torah scroll in the Temple to the gathered people, on the holiday of Sukkot after the sabbatical year. Since the year now ending, 5782, was a sabbatical year, then this Sukkot will be the occasion for that reading, and observance of that mitzvah — assuming that the Messiah comes between now and then, rebuilds the Temple, and reinstates a king over Israel.

Barring that — well, the Lubavitcher rebbe had a plan. As Rabbi Kaminker explained, “the rebbe said we can use the idea of hakhel to connect everyone together and renew our faith and connect to Hashem.”

And while the focus on the mitzvah is on the king in the Torah, “the rebbe said that everyone is a leader, and everyone has the ability to influence others. So everyone should use this year to do as many gatherings as possible.”

Each month, beneath the machine-generated art, Rabbi Kaminker presents some “conventional wisdom,” which is then countered by “The out-of-the-box, Hakhel way” and followed by a practical “Hakhel suggestion.”

So for October, beneath the chasidim dancing in Times Square, the conventional wisdom is that “the relationship we have with G-d is a very solemn matter,” which is rebutted with a call “to jump with joy and celebrate” and a suggestion to “Introduce more joy to your service of G-d.”

Talking with Rabbi Kaminker, it’s clear that playing with the AI brought him joy — along with a fair amount of frustration. Given the technology’s limitations, Rabbi Kaminker believes that “at the end of the day it’s not going to be a replacement for real artists. A computer is a computer and it has a limit of what it can create. I’m definitely considering going back to an artist for next year’s calendar.”

But underlying the hours he put in experimenting with the software is “the idea we can even use the computer to get people connected to Hashem,” he said.

He said that when Lubavitchers first began broadcasting over the radio in the 1960s, “a lot of people in religious circles said, how can you use the radio? The radio is bad!

“But the rebbe said everything Hashem created is for the clear purpose of revealing Hashem into the world. So that was like a challenge to me: How can I harness the AI to bring people closer to Hashem?”

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