AI and art

Some artists have been using AI techniques for decades, a particularly well known one being Harold Cohen, who made work using a system that he called AARON. I have been using a form of AI in my work since at least the mid 1980’s. I have not however been using machine learning techniques of the type that are currently getting an enormous amount of attention in popular media. My programs use state engines and state transition tables to create agent-based systems for image generation. This type of AI technique has been exploited in an enormous number of contexts, not least in games and digital effects. The ‘animals’ in my Smallworld programs are like game ‘bots’. The main reason for using these simple techniques is because I am fascinated by the compositions that can be created using them. Combined with this has been a desire to explore, question and celebrate the way that we can respond to automatic phenomena as if they were caused intentionally. The automatic agents in my programs (that I have referred to variously as animals, creatures, bees and so on) are not only intended to generate shapes and forms that have aesthetic effects related to organically generated forms like plants and other living organisms but also to present behavioural characteristics similar to those of actual animals.  The intention is that we might read more into them than is actually there and know that we are doing so. To me a key element in experiencing the work is thinking about the way that the apparently organic cause of the appearance of the compositions, or the impression that the ‘animals’ are intelligent, is an illusion constructed by us. We imagine it as we try to make some kind of sense of what we are looking at.

Early Smallworld species design interface including state transition table

The current controversy caused in the media by the promotion of programs that generate images, texts, music, etc. using deep learning techniques seems rather surprising. It is as if artists have never used AI techniques before. Speculation appears to be being fed by the idea that the programs are the artists, rather than being tools used by artists. The fact that the programs have been created by humans can evoke age-old visceral fears and ethical doubts, envisaging hubristic consequences of the creation of devices capable of artificial human-like activity. The potential of making autonomous artificial humanoids is also being alluded to.  One example that seeks to draw attention to and encourage discussion of this issue is the Ai-Da project which does so by using current technology to present a new riff on the rich history of constructing art-making humanoid machines.

The latest achievements will I hope lead to some original discussions rather than simple repetition of previous arguments. To achieve more depth in such discussions, it would be valuable to acknowledge that these new developments are not happening in an historical vacuum. There are precedents which should inform the discussion so as to lead to more satisfying conclusions.

Later Smallworld species design interface with urgency for each event

From my experience using “Good Old-Fashioned AI” (GOFAI) in my work suggests that the use of the techniques currently being promoted in the creative arts should not be too great a problem, in fact it may open possibilities. The surge of interest seems to be due to the apparent ease with which the programs can be used, as well as their effectiveness at generating products that could plausibly be the product of human creativity alone. Personally, I have found most of the work that I have been aware of being produced using these currently celebrated techniques superficial or aesthetically repulsive. It reminds me of something Harold Cohen said about the way artists need to embrace “difficult to use” technology. Thus, expertise developed through practice in using these new tools will be needed to produce anything of real worth. There are still issues to be resolved around what AI technology might be used for, including imitating human activities and the creation of human facsimiles more convincing and hence potentially misleading than game bots. It would surely be instructive when addressing these questions, to consider what has gone before.

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