Monday, January 12, 2015

Robots make art but AI can't recognize it

Robots and computers cannot create works of art.

That's one distinction a few have made. It seems an effort to stake a claim, to hold on to something that is a uniquely human attribute in the face of ever-increasing change. But is it true?

Consider the following video:

Roboticists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology created the robot in that video. It receives images designed on a tablet and then recreates them in the sand. The robot moves on three wheels, dragging a rake behind it to create the artistic patterns. Its three-wheeler setup makes it more suited for long curves rather than sharp angles and corners. The idea is to turn the given beach into an artistic canvas, a digitally-controlled sketchbook.

To be sure, the designs are most impressive and the technical achievement is laudable. At the same time, we must ask, "is it the robot's art?" Is it really the art of whoever is on the iPad? One could make the distinction...and rightly so...that the robot itself is not creating the art. It is merely carving in the sand what's been told to create, not conceptualizing the design.

True, this robot does not have an artificial intelligence component. As it turns out, however, that might not be much help.

Artificial intelligence is getting eerily accurate at identifying what it is looking at...unless it happens to be looking at abstract art. This list from Wired (with an admittedly misleading headline) shows a number of images that an AI algorithm failed to identify and what it said they were instead.

All in all, not bad.

I mean, look at a few of them. The AI labeled one of the pictures "baseball." Not a bad assessment. Not a bad one at all given the "red stitching" pattern. Additionally, abstract art...or randomly generated art as the text calls something that many people have difficulty discerning. It is subjective by its very nature. That's why a frequent question at art galleries is "What do you see in it?" I find that to be one of my absolute favorite conversation topics. But I digress...

Should an AI be able to answer that question in the same manner that a human might while viewing art, well, that would be something. That kind of thinking requires special discernment, creative intuition, and an advanced form of pattern recognition. Mimicking those functions of the brain would be quite the AI achievement indeed. We're not there, yet. Actually, we're a fair ways off from it. Still, that would be quite a benchmark. If technology, be it robots, AI, or more likely a fusion of both, were to conceive and produce art of their own accord, that would force once more a radical re-conceptualization of what "human" means.

Here's to hoping we don't a get a glut of bad paintings from them first.

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