Alex Martinelli, Data Engineer and Artist

I am Alex Martinelli, and I am currently working as Data Engineer at Zalando in Dublin and was previously in IBM Watson. My main expertise and focus are on data-science and machine learning, with a general passion encompassing the whole fields of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. I grew up in a lovely valley in the north of Italy, and then attended the University of Trento for my bachelor, and EIT Digital for my master’s, with my final year in Budapest. From there I decided that I wanted to try to live in different places, so after the search for a job I ended up in Dublin, Ireland. Being an English speaking country and IT hub of Europe were the main favourable points, but I also had good sincere memories from my previous trips to the city.

My desire to work in data engineering started in university I believe. At the time I just liked the topic, the most pragmatic and practical scientific discipline, I would say. My passion for Artificial Intelligence slowly cleared along those years of studying, and during my master’s I knew that was the topic I wanted to work on in my life. It is just fascinating the achievements that are now possible with this technology. It is also about humbly understanding that we (humans) are not so unachievably special. There is no unbreakable barrier to artificially replicate all that we are capable to do. It is the base for another Copernican Revolution, cause yes, we always tend to put ourselves superior or at the centre of the rest. This technology will be the one to predominantly shape the future, in good or bad.

My interests outside of work include traditional drawing, digital painting, 3D graphics, and recently, generative art. As for every other discipline, you need to constantly practice if you really want to get better. I try to stick to this rule and do at least one hour of “graphic art” every two days, even if I do not feel like it. Most of the time I tend to be working on something that I simply enjoy enough to forget about the curse of time, so I tend to be pretty safe on the maintenance of this routine. The other good point is that I can scribble on paper or on my tablet practically anywhere: on the bus, on a flight, while sunbathing, in a meeting or even during a wedding (so many nice drawings are made during weddings; so many nice outfits).

We are all interested in drawing from the very beginning of our lives, that is, to understand, capture or create new realities on a piece of paper. But then some grow up, and their brains start to abstract and generalize, and they lose the ability to portray reality in graphite lines (if not by words). At that point, we think we are not natural artists and give up on the practice. I have papers (and plenty of high school desks) of drawing filling all my past years, so yes, I have probably just been lucky to never grow up on this aspect.

I like to associate the moment where I formalized and rationalized this internal passion for art, to my first course-lesson on using Blender, a 3D computer graphic software. Natural fascination and interest permeated my brain while a polygon and pixelated dragon was taking shape. The creation process, the activity of giving light to something that seemingly never existed, is captivating, and really satisfactory for human beings, it seems. But we also have a pervasive ambitious need: we want to create better things. The better we get at something, and the better we are at spotting mistakes and flaws, creates a virtuous cycle.

It is inevitable to have your life significantly shaped and influenced by your hobbies, be it voluntarily or not. You simply start seeing and thinking in line with your activities. I more than often find myself decomposing what surrounds me, what I see, in terms of lines and shapes, lights and shadows. Nothing defines your life as much as perception does.

On a more pragmatic side, others believing that my scribbles were good offered opportunities that otherwise I would not have experienced… I did some artwork for a pub during my university years; I attended real-life drawing sessions; I collaborated with magazines, and I was more than ready to provide mocking vignettes and caricatures for/of my friends when needed. Also, maybe not as powerful as a guitar, but sure some girls appreciated personal portraits or being a muse.

They say variety is good for the brain, giving it plasticity and adaptability. Working in both tech and art provide that kind of variety. Plus there is the resting aspect, and given the different kinds of mental effort that the two activities require, I am happy to know that I can keep being productive while resting. Plus one never knows about the future, the two might be combined at some point, or I might give up on technology entirely, and dedicate myself to a pure hermit art life.

It is worth pointing out that I am colour-blind (protanopia in my case), which is indeed a peculiar, and unadvisable, trait for an artist. This aspect, plus the need to optimize time I put into works, plus a natural sympathy and predilection for the binary realm, are the contributor to my preference for digital art. I still use paper and pencil occasionally, but otherwise all my creativity flows through my loyal Wacom Pro Intuous into Photoshop. I sometimes also take advantage or experiment with 3D art, mostly still relying on Blender.

I have more recently been exploring the idea of generative art through machine learning. The basic idea is to have models/methods able to create original semantic-rich content in an automated fashion. Recent advances in machine learning make it possible to tackle more and more challenging cognitive tasks. For example, I started experimenting with things such as automated drawing colorization, image generation from text, 3D object reconstruction from images, face swapping and concept-art generation, but the list of possibilities is steadily growing, and so are the related online learning resources, which I highly suggest anyone checkout, no matter your background or current job.

At the very base of these methods, as for the rest of our universe, it is all about math. Smart people and powerful hardware are solving at a rapid pace many tasks that we previously believed proper only of the human brain.

It naturally follows that the impact of A.I. on jobs is a big and controversial topic. I personally stand on the less-optimistic side: it is not going be all puppies and sunshine; it is not going to be only about the safe words of “enabling” and “empowering”. Drastic changes call for equivalent drastic adaptation from people and society as a whole. For art, as for the rest, I feel as though mediocrity will be strongly penalized, cause the mediocre work is the first made obsolete by strong automation. We will all have powerful tools at our disposal, to learn, improve and iterate faster, but there will be the need to bring something to the table that machines alone cannot bring.

I tend to have a very utilitarian view of things, which might clash with art as a hobby. Is art a medium, is art the message, or is “art for art’s sake”? Now more than ever people are looking for attention (e.g. likes, followers), and cause is perceived as confirmation, even if ephemeral. I believe artists are no less, so art is often done for the others, not for ourselves. An artist true only to himself or herself is one that does not show their art to others (for feedback that is inevitably bias), which by definition is an artist that we will never know about.

I admit I do art for others; I crave the triggering of emotions and reactions into others, for some subconscious and most likely primordial reason. Dark lines of broken graphite on white sheets of cellulose can influence the feelings and state of a person, if you know what you are doing. I guess for now I am just aiming to get better at this.

The vastness and resourcefulness of the web make it as such that I have plenty of references and images to use as inspiration, but rarely know about the artists behind it. In a way what I really care about in this context is just the results, rather then the cause or creator. If I browse through some of my references, I can find works of Degas mixed with Frank Frazetta, Mucha and Michelangelo, Miyazaki and Disney animators like Glen Keane, but for most I am clueless as to the person behind it.

Both technology and art require dedication and deliberate practice in order to grow and internalize the correct way to do things. For a different thinking mode can bring new creative and elegant ideas to the table. I believe creativity is so strongly associated with art because in the tech world there is generally a more formal definition of what is the correct way to solve a problem, and a more precise definition of a problem itself, especially during the learning/school years. But after that, for all areas, work is about creatively defining problems and creatively solving them, where the creative part inevitably includes optimization for the implementation and quality of the solution.

We tend to be blind to what our state was in the past; we improve in our effectiveness but also in our judgement, which is great, but I say to keep track of your works; save, store, timestamp them, and then simply enjoy the experience of your progress. Find your reasons for fueling this passion, and make sure to bring dedication and formalism into it. Practice, practice, practice. And that one time, that one time once in a while, stare at those lines, at those colour strokes, that whatever-medium you are meddling with, realize what made it possible, the complexity behind it and everything that surrounds it, and just be content to be.

Check out more of Alex’s work here!

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