Five Seven Five: Day 3 – Heart and Soul – Can AI Do Art?

This one’s for Dawn, wherever she is. The video will say why!

This post is part of a collection of thoughts I’m putting together as a companion to Five Seven Five, a stand-alone book that uses haiku I wrote as input to an AI art generator. It was a super-fun project to build. You can get it by backing my kickstarter. Or you can pre-order it at several online retailers.

g the project I decided I wanted to explore the bigger picture of how AI is impacting our world, and specifically the creative world I dwell in.

Today I’m thinking about whether it is even possible for an AI to create something we call art.

Some definitions of art I’ve seen limit its creation to humans only. By those definitions then an AI is literally incapable of creating art. As would be a dolphin, or a whale, or any species that might live on another world. (Here’s a fun Google search for Animals Creating Artwork. Per that strict definition of human involvement, they don’t count.)

But here’s a question: Using the guideline that human involvement is required for art to be possible, how much effort does a human need to put into something to call it art?

When a person paints a block of wood blue and says it represents X, is that art?

Of course, it is.

It’s a style I personally find difficult to get into, but that doesn’t mean anything. Pretty much all definitions of art I’ve seen also suggest that “art” is something that creates an emotional response in an audience. And any piece of work “good enough” to create that emotional response is therefore art. Blue squares does it for some folks. Hence, it’s art.

How about when a person programs a fractal?

Is that art? I think it is. Perhaps you don’t? It was all the rage there for a while, though. I programed some fractal stuff myself. It was très cool. Here’s another Google search for fractal art. Check it out.

Another question: who is the creator of fractal art? If we agree it is a valid artform, who is the artist?

That fractal algorithm has no heart or soul. Its beauty lies in its E=mc2 kind of elegance. But the programmer mat well not be even able to hold a brush. So, really, who is the artist?

The bottom line here is that a fractal creates its output differently than a human does, but its processes were created by humans. Does that count? If so, how is that different from an AI?

The Gray Area podcast recently released an episode in which a very interesting interview with AI expert Timnit Gebru explored many sides of AI. I’ll probably use it again soon when I get into ethics involved in AI, and where I see problems with it. But for now I wanted to use it as a baseline for what AI is. Because some people seem to think these learning programs are highly defined and deeply controlled by programmers.

But, no. Not quite.

An AI is probabilistic. Random, in a sense. There are constraints, but those constraints are basically learning methods.

And it’s in that randomness that I think so many people get caught up or worried. Randomness suggests a lack of control, or more important for this conversation, a lack of purpose. Yet, Jackson Pollack’s work is highly random, and he’s a grandmaster. His work is moving even if he didn’t control things tightly and even if we don’t really get it all the time. Mostly his works are big, globby messes, but they are very cool globby messes.

So, let’s talk about another ephemeral artist. Some one or something I’ll call the Powers that Bs. This immense thing—whatever it is—works its artistic magic in the medium of natural sciences.

They are highly random in nature. Created by happenstance, but then observed by us and made into whatever we want to make of them.

What is a gorgeous sunset, after all, but the bending and filtering of the sun’s rays at a particular angle, through a randomly shifting gathering of clouds. As those clouds move, so moves the sunset. Unless you believe in a particularly active god, though, no artist creates those amazingly profound moments. Yet I, for one, find great value and beauty in them. I assume you do, too.

I consider a sunset to be a piece of art. A perfect sunset can make me stop and think about things bigger than myself.

Yet, a truly perfect sunset cannot be attained, right? What is a perfect sunset, after all? Who gets to decide? Those are false questions. A perfect sunset simply does not exist except that we know it when we see it.

Ah, art.

Of course, I also find massive thunderstorms to be inspiring things of beauty, too. A thunderstorm in one of nature’s great pieces of art. As is a nebula, filtered through the lenses of our powerful space telescopes. Talk about random, right? Totally unpredictable at the level we’re talking about.

I posit this: In the same way that the randomness of nature can create things we find inspiring, so can an AI.

There are people who take offense to this idea of art. I am expanding that definition above to allow for art to be something created both from within and outside the human experience.

For those people, a piece of art must be communication between two sentient beings. And AI, despite what a Google guy once said, is not sentient. For those artists, the mindset an artist brings to the work is as important and as required as the output itself—meaning there must be intent in the creation of something for it to be art.

I get that. I do. As a writer, this is the brand of art that I personally create. My goal is to move you with my stories, and even if they don’t land as I’ plan them to, I have certain intentions in mind.

But that is only one brand of art.

And that also assumes the art (my art) communicates fully and perfectly—something that never, or very rarely happens. I may be saying something when I create a manuscript, but a reader will bring their own framework to the table and that framework will change the meaning. The art is then in their power, not mine.

If the reader of one of my stories has a different reaction that I intended, does that invalidate my art? No. It does not.

Perhaps, then, there are two pieces of art in any work—that of creator and that of the observer. I think this is true. And if you buy my thought here, both sides of the art coin are valid, meaning that using one definition does not invalidate the other, and that the two can operate totally independent of one another. In my mind, if either side exists, then there is art.

So, can an AI create art?

It’s an interesting question that goes deep if you don’t allow yourself to bristle at the first reaction.

I think the answer is, yes. The AI can do something we consider art.

But it’s a different kind of art.

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