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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Jan-18


Sunday 8-January-18

But is it art? The tricky question of whether computers can be artists

Can computers, perhaps in the guise of a future artificial intelligence, be creative? Can they create something whereby many people agree that the result is true art?

The first question here is 'What is art?' Is it about the result, created by whatever means? Is it about the customer, the user, the observer? Do people have to agree something is art before we can agree that it is art? Or is it about the artist, and the process of creative thinking? And if so, does this preclude computers from ever being creative? To plunder an over-used metaphor, can there be creativity in the forest when nobody is there?

A simple definition of art (though not the only one) is of something that deliberately stimulates. This allows for art in music, cooking and other areas. It also allows for varying pleasure. While creating widespread pleasure can be profitable, others may scorn such populism and delight in anguished expression. Stimulation may be gained through representation, which can range from a simple photograph (where machines have long played a part) to a clever sculpture made with scrap-yard parts. Even in more abstract representation, if rules can be defined, then machines may create.

An extension of the question of stimulation which resonates with this site is that art changes minds. Through its provocation, it makes people think differently and maybe become different people. In such ways, art can changes lives.

A key aspect is emotion. Art stimulates feelings as reactions to a creation. This is more difficult for machines, but not impossible. While provoking some feeling is quite feasible (we are emoting creatures, after all), gaining the awe and wonder great art may be a more difficult challenge.

A further consideration is in the balance of familiarity and surprise. Representation, even in abstract terms, needs something familiar. From this base, corruption and unexpected variation grabs attention, and the art of the artist is in knowing the line between pleasure and irritation that this creates. This task is far harder for machines and is a boundary that will be hard to cross.

Jack Tait is a retired photography lecturer who builds simple machines that draw, using a careful combination of determinism and randomisation. It uses pens, driven by various motors, gears and cams. Not all drawings are good art, but he is making progress in improving the good-to-bad ratio.

There are many examples of computers doing incredible things. Perhaps one of the most astonishing of late is the story of the Go-playing supercomputer. In 2016, Google's AlphaGo Lee beat Lee Sedol, 9th Dan master, at a game that is reputed to be the greatest intellectual challenge. It did so by analyzing many, many previous games, giving it more options at its super-natural fingers. But then, only a year later, AlphaGo Zero soundly beat its predecessor with only knowledge of the basic rules of the game. Observers of the games were confused by the unorthodox moves the computer made, but were later convinced of the genius when these proved very effective.

Even given all this seems unlikely that computers will create great art any time soon, especially given the emotional sensitivity required. Yet it may come, alongside great empathy when this is cracked. When your computer understand you better than anyone, when you prefer its company and laugh uproariously at its hilarious new jokes, then maybe, only then, will it creates you amazing artworks in its spare time.

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