VisCenter Distinguished Lecture: What Would Calculating be Like if Turing were an Artist and Not a Logician; What Does This Say about Seeing and Counting?

George Stiny (Design and Computation, MIT)
April 25, 2013 - 12:30 PM
Woodward 130
Refreshments will be served. Abstract: Today, the Turing machine is the standard model of calculating. There are, however, alternative models, where Turing machines are a special case. Shape grammars shift calculating from counting in Turing machines to seeing as artists do in drawing and painting – symbols, identity, and unit translations in Turing machines become shapes, embedding, and continuous transformations. Recursion drives shape grammars and Turing machines in the same way; embedding and identity are the difference. This makes shape grammars vital for art and design. Leon Battista Alberti – Renaissance artist, architect, and writer – said why six centuries ago. Herbert Simon – another Renaissance man – agrees, but in the wrong way. (There’s a parallel for scientific calculating. This strikes an arc from drawing and painting to Newton’s method for polynomials that puts art and science on equal footing.) George Stiny is Professor of Design and Computation at MIT. He joined the Department of Architecture in 1996 after sixteen years at UCLA, and currently heads the PhD program in Design and Computation at MIT. Educated at MIT and at UCLA, where he received a PhD in Engineering, Stiny has also taught at the University of Sydney, the Royal College of Art (London), and the Open University. His work on shape and shape grammars is widely known for its theoretical insights linking seeing and calculating, and its striking applications in design practice, education, and scholarship. Stiny has recently completed a book on design and calculating – Shape: Talking about Seeing and Doing – published by The MIT Press and available free online at He is the author of Pictorial and Formal Aspects of Shape and Shape Grammars, and of Algorithmic Aesthetics: Computer Models for Criticism and Design in the Arts.