Tuesday, 23 January 2018


The BBC news article headline was explicit: SCRIBBLES TURNED INTO FINE ART BY VINCENT AI APP: see - http://www.bbc.com/news/av/technology-42603660/ces-2018-scribbles-turned-into-fine-art-by-vincent-ai-app WOW! What else might one want?

The explanation was that the machine had been 'trained' by learning from 8,000 Renaissance paintings. When one 'scribbled' on the screen, the machine interpreted the outlines and then tried to turn them into a Renaissance ‘masterpiece.’ The creator said that the project intended to show the capability of 'intelligent' machines. Indeed, the sample scribbles were turned into images that one might classify as 'fine art,' especially once a frame had been placed around them and hung artfully on a wall for display: an art gallery wall would truly confirm the pieces as ‘fine art.’ Ironically, the works looked less like Renaissance works than some poor copies of selected sundry pieces from the modern art world. The experimenter noted that the works looked like those seen on motel walls. They did have the appearance of those paintings produced in the east, en masse, for this commercial market: rough, uncommitted, fuzzy copies or reinventions, with a touch of insincerity, along with a certain pretence. The worry was that this digital output was being described to the world as 'fine art.'

AI art

Another item on the subject on the ABC News, was a quiz to test one's perception: WAS THIS ART MADE BY A HUMAN OR A ROBOT?: see - http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-12/quiz-was-this-art-made-by-a-human-or-a-robot/8790232 Gosh, who can tell? This was the very point! The quiz appeared to be establishing the proposition that AI art was as good as, or perhaps even better than that made by man. What might be next? Can art be so easily created now with our great technologies, or are we being duped? Somehow, somewhere, there is something strange here; something askew. What is it?

The art of the scribble, ready to be transformed into a masterpiece

Art feels as though it might, or should, hold something qualitatively significant. It embodies a world of mystery and subtlety that can be transformative. The quiz included paintings; poems; and music. All of these aspects of art can be understood to hold substance, to be subtly meaningful for life and being: able to enrich; to explain. Now, in our brave new world, we are being told that 'fine art,' and all of this informative enrichment, can be created by AI, artificial intelligence – a technological creation of our own. Can this be so? There seemed to be a strange circularity here.

The examples given looked like art: they were smudgy; vaguely impressionistic; colourful; suggestive of something uncertain: they were 'arty.' Perhaps this is the aim? How can one know any art, visual or otherwise - let alone an enriching, life-enhancing art - other than in its experience? In painting, this is its appearance; in music, its sound; in poetry, its music and sound, and sometimes all three. What does AI think its doing? Does AI ‘think’? Is it creating things, appearances, experiences, that look like those things we know, or have known, as art? If this is so, then we are playing a silly game of simple ‘looks like.’ What else can it do? What else might it do? The terrible innuendo is in the name – Vincent. Are we to see each work ‘as a Vincent van Gogh’ or something close to this? It is strange that the images all appear to be of this vintage rather than relating to the Renaissance era.

Is it really up to us to decide if this is art or otherwise? If we choose to allow ourselves to be gullible enough to believe that AI has ‘created’ some new wonder that we might call ‘art,’ or even ‘fine art,’ then we can, and indeed, will believe this. It requires one great leap in faith, or a blindness to it. AI works on systems being trained in a certain manner, and then being allowed to operate within the boundaries of this framework, however, even if it might be in new, unexpected ways. All that is happening is that the rules are being flipped about within the boundaries of the rules provided, to give us variations on themes from patterns that have been introduced into AI. Call a black page art for AI, and bingo, one will appear, small or large. One might even get a red page!! WOW! Clever AI!

Are we the ones being manipulated here? We create algorithms for AI, and allow these to run willy-nilly within their possibilities, and then become amazed at how the machine might create different, familiar arty appearances from scribbles - using rules we have established. Are we silly? This is only ‘AI-games’ art. Art needs roots, substance, to exist and to be truly relevant. It is not just an ‘interesting, decorative, and different’ thing for distraction, discussion, and entertainment. If art is merely appearances and smart intrigues in variations, then AI art can be a part of this ornamental, cosmetic world. One could be cynical and suggest that AI has an immediate role in architecture today that appears to be centred on appearances, intrigues and different variations. If paintings, their particular quirky styles and techniques, can be learned by a machine, then buildings could be too, and probably have been.

Art with meaning is different, as is architecture too. It has beginnings in experienced depth: a necessity, ‘an internal necessity,’ as Kandinsky nicely described it; one that, about which, as Martin Lings noted with traditional art, ‘we can not marvel enough,’ But one can already hear the critique – this ‘inner necessity’ is simply what has been given as AI to the robot, that produces outcomes that make us marvel – “You are wrong. Go away.” Words do not become useful in this debate; they remain clever play things for verbal and conceptual jousting. Something else is required for understanding.

But what are the examples. The scribbles were illustrated, along with the results. One looked like a Dali; another a Klee; yet another, a van Gogh. One came to see each work ‘as,’ and recalled Wittgenstein’s ‘seeing as’ duck-rabbit. Is it this perceptual parallel that allows such a clever programme to be seen to produce something that can be called or considered 'fine art'?

The process of defining parameters for action and then leaving these operate, and produce a different image autonomously, does not make art. The procedure reminds one of architecture students being dazzled by their own work once it has been produced by the machines: a “Wow! Look at this,” as the item rolls off the printer, 2D or 3D – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/12/abedian-school-of-architecture-spring.html

We have marvellous technologies today that are capable of astonishing feats. We should remain wary of the language we might choose to describe their operations and output; our desire to humanise them to suit our vision of robots. The machines do not ‘think’; nor do they produce ‘fine art.’ They can be said to be working as though they might be doing something that superficially appears to be these things, but they are not doing this. They are operating under our rules that can give us surprises when implemented in unexpected ways, but this is neither intellect nor art.


Quiz: Was this art made by a human or a robot?

Posted 12 Aug 2017, 5:03am

PHOTO: A work by Jon McCormack from Fifty Sisters, a series of 50 digital plant images created using an 
algorithm. (Supplied by Jon McCormack)

This week, we've been talking about all things artificial intelligence: how it works, and how it will change our careers and personal lives over the coming decades.
But there are some things that seem particularly human, and one of the major ones is creativity.
Here are a range of artworks. See if you can tell which were created by a human and which by machine.

1.  Was this painting done by a human or a robot?


2.  This painting: AI or blood, sweat and tears?


3.  This poem: Human or robot?

He was a shirtless man
in the back of his mind,
and I let out a curse as
he leaned over to kiss
me on the shoulder.


4.  Another poem. What do you think?

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake


5.  How about this music?
(Hint: Don't be swayed by the recording. Just think about the composition.)


6.  Lastly, some prose. Man or machine?

That's not human
That is human

QUIZ: Human or robot quiz

6 questions remaining

For the record:
1  human
2  AI
3  AI
4  human
5  AI
6  human

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