(This is a post dedicated to my buddy Scott Cooper who routinely provokes these discussions. I’ll take the blame for flying off on preposterous and overkilled tangents….)
The last few posts have explored topics that (at a stretch) can be seen to relate to this question. That’s why I’m here. I’m your fastidious dot connector, your outrageous recycler of mashed up information, your daydreaming spinner of delusion and illusion. What can I say. Its an art….
So…, a few posts ago I raised the question of whether art making was simply a matter of object generation. Chuck Close suggested that the showing up, nose to the grindstone, was more important than anything as ephemeral, inconsistent, and unreliable as inspiration. Machines don’t need inspiration, thunderbolts from out of the blue. There will be no artificial muse for artificial creative intelligence. It will be a matter of routines and subroutines whether a machine will ever be responsible for art in our world. And if all we do as humans to create our art is to churn out product, who’s to say whether we may one day be replaced by machine artists? Industrial production has replaced handcrafting to a large extent, so why not an industrial art? It seems chauvinistic to claim that things are only art due to the touch of a human hand. And didn’t Duchamp dispel that idea when he introduced his ‘ready mades’? And so, if the human hand is not logically necessary for the production of art it must be something else. But what?
That’s the question, isn’t it? Is art really only that object that is left in the world after the producing is done? Is that the art? My next post asked whether there was more to being an artist than producing its objects, more to arting than the ‘art’. The question was whether being an artists was part of living a human life, how we live, whether living itself was a project for art, and whether any particular product or outcome was necessitated in the art process. Is the message in the medium, or is the message in the intention behind the doing?
And obviously if we look in this direction the fit between art and machines starts to unravel. Machines may be a part of an art undertaking, a tool to be used in the process, a means to creating art objects as ends, but they may not square up so well as the inherent source of artness. Its execution, yes, but perhaps not its inspiration. Art seems to need a reason….
But maybe we aren’t looking at the work involved in making things correctly if we invoke some godlike spiritual act in the performance of creation. Conscious intention. A human brain is at least something like an organic computational device. Any inspiration or consciousness we have has to originate somewhere within this mass of jelly. Isn’t the question of AI whether we can simulate a meat mind with a digital one? But setting aside the hardware issue (which as far as consciousness goes seems unknowable) the software seems a bit more approachable. AI is interested in the behavior of machines. Making art seems to be a particular kind of intention. So, if modern day machines are defined by their ability to follow rules, to make this or that decision given the right circumstances or input, does this answer the question of their intentionality?
Following rules does seem to denote an intention. But art isn’t always about providing the right answers. The intention of literally following the evident rules is not the intention of art. Often its as much about what we leave out. Showing rather than telling. The art is sometimes in knowing what not to say. Leaving room for interpretation. Reading between the lines. Knowing how to unlock an audience’s imagination. Can machines do that? Can simple rule following know the difference between enough and too much? If art lies in this sometimes gray area outside the mere rule following can machines intend to make art. Or do they simply do what they are told?
Which seems like an important distinction. The next post I put up was an exploration of the nature of art as something which on the face of it seems uniquely human: The purposeful and intentional breaking of rules. We think of art as not merely reproducing conventions, regurgitating statistical probabilities, but rather that active transgression of categories and the defiance of expectation. We can have intentions that are parallel to the rules, consistent with them, independent of them, or in stark negation of them. To make art a human artist takes a stand against the pressures of conformity. Its not the lowest common denominator but an egalitarian confusion of idiosyncrasy and individuality. Its not a simple case of input A equals output B. New art by definition is something of a revolution against the old. The thread of artistic change passes through the needle’s eye of mystifying, inscrutable, and even ‘bad’ art in order to eventually weave a tapestry of new appreciation. Even the best of art often starts out as something reviled.
So one question would be, if machines were to innovate artistically, would they be producing variations on a programmable theme, or would they be routinely blowing our minds? Would they be trapped in statistical conventions or would they be the mad untethered geniuses of DaVinci, Van Gogh, and Picasso? It seems one thing for a spam bot to carry on a limited conversation with live humans, a computer to play chess, but something wholly different to stand on the cutting edge of human experience, to give new voice to beauty, to move the human race forward. Can machines ever do that? Can they aim for that? Human intelligence can design and program machines to do the stupendous, the gravity defying, the earth shattering, but will an artificial intelligence ever do this of its own volition? That’s the question, isn’t it….
(Here’s an interesting discussion of some of these topics. Well worth a read.)
It seems that the issue also comes down to what role art plays in a human life. And obviously that means one thing for the artist plumbing the depths of their imagination, their creative ‘soul’, and something quite different for an audience accepting the fruits of this labor. In the sense that an artificial intelligence might produce ‘objects an audience classifies as art’ that seems not impossible, but in the sense that art is also an expression, perhaps not so much. This is a question not of how well it can fool the public. This is the question of the motivations for artmaking.
If new art is new expression, then it has to also mean something, and meaning and understanding are not simply reducible to having appropriate answers. Meaning exists only within a web of life. Which isn’t static. Whose growth comes in fits and starts, and often with a retracing of steps and intuitive leaps of non rational proportions. The bots that spam us are trying to give us the right answers, that’s their job, and they play by the rules of certain statistical expectations. But do they ‘understand’ what they are doing? Understanding means having reasons to make a choice. “Yes I will”, or “No I won’t”. Can a machine have an intention to spontaneously NOT play by the rules, to invent its own new path, to skip the rails on a whim? Can an artificial intelligence ever be whimsical? Just how should we make sense of that question? (And keep that in mind as you read further.)
This problem is directly related to the question of art and innovation. If art often breaks new ground then it only does this by upsetting routines. And this is what we call creativity. Its a new logic in contrast to the old. Pseudo logic and irrational reasons. So in some sense all art that sets out in new directions is a kind of ‘mistake’ when viewed in the context of art’s past. Not mistake as in the failure of intentions, but in purposely stepping on the toes of well schooled lines.
And machines can make mistakes. But human mistakes often have the flavor of an advantage. What is the difference between mistakes that go somewhere and those that dead end? Ones that simply abort a logic and those that create something entirely different? New meaning. A new routine. A new reason for doing things a new way. What would the difference be between simply making a mistake in the program/routine and engaging in something wholly unique and self sustaining? At what point does error become poetry?
A human mistake might be adding 2+ 2 and getting 6, or calling something “red” that was green, or calling it something entirely unrelated to our color categories, nonsense like indicating green by calling it “stubborn”, “cooking” or “uymdfy”. And machine errors are often like that. We can sometimes retrain to get the ‘correct’ responses. But there are also error differences that are not always literal rule breaking and which rather than needing to be corrected are a new form of response. And it is in this way that art steps forward. Some transgressions are more like rule bending, e.g. “My love is a flower….” We can learn to make sense of that. We can sing a song in a new key. We can change the words and ad lib. We can improvise. Randomly associate. Use metaphor. Tell jokes. Blow up in anger. The art is in knowing when to set the ‘normal’ rules aside.
In other words, we can be irrational for good reasons. There is simply a whole tonne of nuance to humans not following the literal or conventional rules. Can we say the same of mechanical breakdowns? A human fail is sometimes still a win. If a machine intelligence is based only on following the rules it seems there is only one kind of mistake possible. And that would not lead to art….. Art consists in turning ‘mistakes’ into gold.
But who am I to predict what may or may not be possible in future artificial intelligence? All I can do is point out what it would have to include to better mimic human intelligence. Understanding how a machine might ‘think’ means first understanding what we mean by ‘thinking’. Creative thinking in the sense I have discussed it is a seemingly unique human capacity. And at this point the thinking that machines do is as far from that art as to be unrecognizable….
But what if machine intelligence of that human order were possible? We can imagine many things, so why not that? What if machines could be artists in the sense that humans are? And the question is, what would that art look like? Would it be comprehensible as ‘human art’? Would it be breaking rules only to fit back in the simian cultural paradigm? Would primate chauvinism inform this new intelligence? Would a machine intelligence still be dependent on its human roots? Or would a machine intelligence not also have to have a machine oriented comprehension? Not a human one? And as different as machine life is from human life, would it come to the same conclusions about the world as we do? Why on earth would it? And if art reflects a way of thinking, would a machine art even be something that humans could understand? From the machine’s point of view? Or would it be like humans guessing at the life of insects and gods?
If human art is essentially a breaking of human rules and going off the beaten human path, just what would that endeavor look like to an artificial intelligence? Clearly we would not be expecting the next Vincent van Gogh. He was all too human in his failings and his transcendence. How might a machine fail and transcend? Not facing a human life it would have to be different. Right? Would we even recognize its performances as art? Its an interesting question that has no answer besides the weak human one. It was after all a human question….
This is a 1997 commercial from Steve Jobs and apple inc, who know a thing or two about creative intelligence:
“Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine.
They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world,
are the ones who do…”