Can Machines Produce Art?

Written by Nilesh

April 4, 2017

Machines exceeding human performance is not something scheduled to happen in the future; it is already happening.

Artificial Intelligence–a domain of technology that most people think belongs in futuristic science fiction–is making a lot of news of late. Late last year, for example, the White House, under the outgoing administration of US President Obama, published a report on the potential of Artificial Intelligence. Analyzing the impending spread of AI technologies, the report stated: “rapid progress in the field of specialized AI will continue, with machines reaching and exceeding human performance on an increasing number of tasks.”

Let’s be clear: Machines exceeding human performance is not something scheduled to happen in the future; it is already happening. Computers already play chess better than humans, for example. And not too long ago, AlphaGo, an AI-powered computer made by Google, defeated Lee Sedol, the reigning world champion in Go, an abstract strategy board game invented in ancient China. And there are a number of fully automatic cars-self-driving cars that do not need a human to operate them-being tested by many companies, including stalwarts of the automotive industry such as Ford and BMW, as well as new entrants like Uber and Google.

Automation: This new wave of automation is not just about doing things at a different scale. Without modern machines like tractors to plow earth and motors to pump water, for example, farming even a small patch of land used to involve the work of dozens of people. But once machines like tractors, motors, and sprinklers come in, a large number of farming jobs are eliminated. But these are non-intelligent machines, mainly taking over laborious tasks from humans. What is happening now is wholly different. The new wave of automation involves the use of intelligent machines, capable of processing information, learning, thinking, and carrying out tasks that till recently, only humans could have performed.

Machines are already playing a role in managing our stock markets, and may soon take that job over entirely, even managing your funds and making investment decisions for you. Machines will also take on medical diagnosis and health predictions, and much much more.

The impact of this Artificial Intelligence revolution on our society will be huge. Governments will have to take a new approach to job creation, welfare, and education. And we humans-who think of themselves as ‘tax-paying individuals making a contribution to the society’-will have to reevaluate our role, and how we fit into an economy where intelligent machines carry out most of the tasks.

Impact: The impact of Artificial Intelligence on our economy and society is a whole area of research and speculation, and many scholars and visionaries are engaged in thinking about it globally. I’m not really looking to explore that domain in this series of articles. What I am interested in, however, is the reaction that many people have when told that intelligent machines will soon be able to do almost everything that humans can, and very likely do it all better. A common response to such assertions, I have found, is: ‘machines may be able to do all the work, but they will not be able to create art.’

I find this claim interesting, and worth examining closely. Why can’t machines produce art? What are some specific characteristics of art that make it so unique and different? What makes art inaccessible to machines? And to start this exploration at an even more basic level: is it really true that machines cannot create art?

Human Unique: There are many characteristics that make humans unique compared to all other species on earth. Sense of humor, religion, prevarication (the ability to lie), language, laughter and humor, the ability to create secondary systems (many other species use tools; only humans use tools to create tools), and more. And art is certainly at the top of this list. Only humans create art. “Art is what makes us human, it separates us from animals.” I’m sure you have heard such assertions, or made them yourself, at some point.

And so far, it has all been true. Nothing non-human could so far create art. But now, we may soon have machines that can create art. Perhaps some are already out there, churning out works of art. In a short series of articles, we’ll explore this important question on which hangs our identity of humanity: ‘Can machines produce art?’ In the next article, we’ll examine what Artificial Intelligence really is all about in some detail, and also examine the nature of art. Then, in a couple of articles, we’ll examine major forms of art-music, painting, literature, etc.-and examine closely the nature of each art form and whether a machine can ever produce something in that genre.

Meantime, let’s write a poem or compose a song!

*This article was originally published on April 4, 2017 in Telangana Today, and can be accessed at Can Machines Produce Art?


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