The Robot Artists Aren’t Coming

The Robot Artists Aren’t Coming

Source: The New York Times.

Artificial intelligence is making machines more creative — but machines don’t make art.

By Ahmed Elgammal

Many artists are turned off by artificial intelligence. They may be discouraged by fears that A.I., with its efficiency, will take away people’s jobs. They may question the ability of machines to be creative. Or they may have a desire to explore A.I.’s uses — but aren’t able to decrypt its terminology.

This all reminds me of when people were similarly skeptical of another technology: the camera. In the 19th century, with the advent of modern photography, cameras introduced both challenges and benefits. While some artists embraced the technology, others saw cameras as alien devices that required expertise to operate. Some felt this posed a threat to their jobs.

But for those artists willing to explore cameras as tools in their work, the aesthetic possibilities of photography proved inspiring. Indeed cameras, which became more accessible to the average user with advancements in technology, offered another technique and form for artistic endeavors like portrait-making.

Art matters because as humans, we all have the ability to be creative. With time, the art we create evolves, and technology plays a crucial role in that process. History has shown that photography, as a novel tool and medium, helped revolutionize the way modern artists create works by expanding the idea of what could be considered art. Photography eventually found its way into museums. Today we know that cameras didn’t kill art; they simply provided people with another way to express themselves visually.

This analogy is crucial to understanding the potential for artificial intelligence to influence art in this century.

As machine learning becomes an increasing part of our everyday lives — incorporated into everything from the phones we text with to the cars we drive — it’s only natural to ask what the future of art in such an A.I.-dominated society will be. This question becomes even more relevant as machines step into the artistic realm as creators of art. In summer 2019, the Barbican Centre in London presented A.I.-produced pieces in a show called “A.I.: More Than Human.” And in November later that year, over one million people attended an exhibition exploring art and science at the National Museum of China in which many works were created using algorithms.

I founded the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers University in 2012. As an A.I. researcher, my main goal is to advance the technology. For me, this requires looking at human creativity to develop algorithms that not only understand our achievements in visual art, music and literature, but also produce or co-produce works in those fields. After all, it is our capacity to expand our creative skills beyond basic problem-solving into artistic expression that uniquely distinguishes us as humans.

Human creativity has led to the invention of artificial intelligence, and now machines themselves can be forces of creativity. Naturally we are curious to see what A.I. is capable of and how it can develop. During the past eight years at the lab, our researchers have realized that A.I. has great potential for solving problems in art. For example, as an analytical tool, machine intelligence can help distinguish authentic paintings from forged ones by analyzing individual brush strokes.

A.I. can also make sense of art by helping uncover potentially similar influences among artworks from different periods. In one test, machine learning was able to identify works that changed the course of art history and highlight new aspects of how that history evolved.

Beyond digesting information, machines have also been able to create novel images — nearly entirely on their own — that viewers are unable to distinguish from works made by human artists. A.I. is even able to compose music that you can listen to on Spotify.

Artists have long integrated new technologies into their practices. A.I. is no exception, yet there is a fundamental difference. This time, the machine is its own source of creativity — with the ability to comb through vast amounts of historical and social data, artificial intelligence can produce truly novel and uncanny imagery that is beyond our imagination. This element of surprise is the force that can advance artistic mediums in new directions, with the machines functioning not only as tools for artists, but also as their partners.

But can an artificially intelligent machine be an artist in its own right? My answer is no.

Image — Ai-Da, a humanoid robot, and Aidan Meller, her inventor, present an oil painting in Oxford, England, created by artists based on a sketch by the robot. Credit — Niklas Halle’n/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While the definition of art is ever-evolving, at its core it is a form of communication among humans. Without a human artist behind the machine, A.I. can do little more than play with form, whether that means manipulating pixels on a screen or notes on a musical ledger. These activities can be engaging and perceptually intriguing, but they lack meaning without interaction between artist and audience.

In recent years I’ve been blessed to work with an increasing number of artists interested in exploring A.I. in their practices. I’ve dedicated myself to this work by developing Playform, a platform that allows artists to experiment with artificial intelligence without having to understand or navigate the algorithms and terminology behind the technology.

Once such technological barriers are lifted, artists can make amazing things happen. Some of them use the technology to create images for artworks or for virtual reality projects. Many use A.I. to find inspiration. Others feed images of their own into the computer, using machine intelligence like a workshop to better understand their style.

I’ve noticed that new technologies are often met first with skepticism before eventually being embraced. I see the same trajectory emerging for artificial intelligence. Like the camera, A.I. offers a means for artists and non-artists alike to express themselves. That makes me confident that smart machines can only help, not hurt, human creativity. The future of art looks promising.

Ahmed Elgammal is the director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Lab at Rutgers University and the founder of the A.I. company Playform.