Expressive Algorithms: Can Computers be Artists?

Can computers create art? Can this art ever be valued for creativity? And, unavoidably, what is art?

Technology that brings computers increasingly closer to humanity: artificial intelligence. With the steady development of various programs that mimic human thought, the rise of artificial intelligence has lent much fear-driven inspiration to apocalyptic stories, in which humans are overpowered by robots in a crushing defeat— a crumbling Tower of Babel. The pop-culture archetypes are only reflections of an anxiety that is becoming very much real in society. But the fear that computers may someday steal one’s job seems to be limited to stereotypically formulaic careers, completely evading the realm of artists. After all, it is difficult to imagine how codes can replace the composer, painter, or poet. But scientists are already making progress in creating artistic robots, posing multiple questions that push the boundaries of contemporary thought: can computers create art? Can this art ever be valued for creativity? And, unavoidably, what is art?

For instance, take AARON, a computer program that produces paintings. With a human partner, it can experiment with colors and shapes, resulting in dynamic, large-scale works that would not seem out of place at a modern art gallery.

A Painting by AARON

Or consider Google’s Deep Dream Generator, which allows the visualization of a computer’s “dream”- or, more accurately and less romantically, a visual depiction of patterns that the program pulls from a blank canvas of white noise, resulting in a fascinating, hallucinatory work of “art”.

A Computer’s “Dream”

The diversity of creative programs stretches far beyond paintings, across the wider spectrum of the Arts- Magenta is a program by Google that can compose original art and music. Although the songs produced autonomously by the program do not hold much entertainment value without human intervention, the program is continuously being developed, lending unlimited potential to how original or enjoyable these songs could eventually become.

Language, considered to be a singular and exclusive gift of humanity, is no exception. The fickle rules and patterns of sentences are being coded into computers with increasing caliber, and machines have already gained the ability to replace generic sports article writers. This is why literature is far from evading the pursuit of technology. For example, a novel written autonomously by artificial intelligence after only being given selected sentences and parameters by the human developers made it past the first round of a Japanese literary prize. The lead developer, Hitoshi Matsubara, said: “so far, AI programs have often been used to solve problems that have answers, such as Go and Shogi. In the future, I’d like to expand AI’s potential [so it resembles] human creativity.”

However, we must question what gives art its value in order to evaluate whether these works, or even more advanced and autonomous works created by robots in the future, could qualify as art. Say technology advances to the point that a robot can make autonomous plot choices and create a novel that is indistinguishable from one written by a human, or can create a song or a painting in a similar manner. To the audience, the work may inspire the same feelings and even cause an original realization about the human condition- despite the irony of that situation. If that were to be, put very crudely, the purpose of art, it may even seem reasonable to state that machines can create art.

But there is a distinction between art and entertainment. It may be a fine line, but things that entertain cannot be considered art before it begins with the desire to express something. And this very idea of expression- of creativity- is something human by definition. As a rough analogy, we would not consider a chimpanzee’s painting worth artistic value unless it was the product of a conscious decision made by the chimpanzee to express an idea or emotion. It merely holds entertainment value in that the concept of a chimpanzee artist is interesting. Another way to think about it is a computer that can generate conversational responses based on mass data of human texts- it cannot be a conversation if the computer is not conversing with its own intent. A painting expressing sadness cannot be art until the computer can experience sadness. Art may very well be the only realm that computers cannot enter, not because they are not smart enough, but because they inherently fail to be human.

Computers can generate entertainment- they may one day produce ideal music, literature, and visual art that is even more pleasing to the senses than work created by humanity. But this, created purely in the aesthetic sense, would still not be art.

Let us return to the initial question- will the rise of artificial intelligence endanger the jobs of artists? It cannot ever undermine the value of true art, but it may invade part of the art industry that is fueled by the search for entertainment. In other words, a large portion of consumers of music, literature, and visual arts can be satisfied with entertainment. If it gives them the same experience, the intent of creation would not matter to them. This means the livelihood of many human creators are indeed at a great risk, jeopardized as the world of binary and digital encroaches upon the world of sentiment and analogue.

But the optimist would like to think that enough artists will remain in the world to value each other’s humanity and the endless will to create. That in a world where the definition of humanity is perpetually shifting from what humans can do to what computers cannot, art will remain standing to shine a light on the spontaneous, eccentric, and insane.

-Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)


Cover Image: image created by Magenta, Google’s artificial intelligence project


2 thoughts on “Expressive Algorithms: Can Computers be Artists?”

  1. A great piece! As a purist, I would pose this question to the skeptics: how much would you pay for a beautiful ‘artwork’ that esthetically rival a Van Gogh? $100 million (as some his actual paintings)? $1,000? Or even $1?

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