When AI Meets the Future of Art

Art is subjective, reactionary, and culturally specific. AI is objective, mathematical and universal. What happens when the two collide?

By Xische Editorial, April 28, 2019

Source: Vladimir Vihrev/ Shutterstock

Source: Vladimir Vihrev/Shutterstock

Of all the transformations promised by the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), the technology's relationship to the arts is the most perplexing. Art is subjective, reactionary, and closely connected to the ethics of a specific culture. It is hard to speak in absolutes when it comes to the quality of art in the same manner as the world of science or math. One culture's masterpiece is another’s travesty. Despite these challenges, the role of AI in art is growing fast and challenging perspectives on the role of technology in art.

Thanks to advancements in generative AI, algorithms are now able to recreate previously lost or damaged works of art. This process is also popular in preserving works under threat and creating new museum experiences that expand the art world’s reach to new populations. Created by computer scientist Ian Goodfellow in 2014, algorithms called “generative adversarial networks” are able to recreate or preserve works of art with the help of an artist or curator.

Mario Klingemann’s Memories of Passersby I sold for $52,000 at Sotheby’s

Mario Klingemann’s Memories of Passersby I sold for $52,000 at Sotheby’s

It is a two-step process beginning with pre-curation, whereby an artist selects hundreds of images from any time period. The algorithm then judges the images and determines which one aligns with the desired input (perhaps the recreation of a lost work). The artist or curator then reviews the algorithm’s results in a step called post-curation. There is an element of human interaction through the pre- and post-curation steps but AI is largely responsible for the heavy lifting of “recreating” a lost work or preserving one at risk.

AI is also getting into the field of creating art itself. Last month, Warner Music signed an AI algorithm to a record deal. The algorithm is part of an AI-powered application that creates ambient music based on user inputs like heart rate and location. The signing announcement was a landmark event in the history of AI in the arts. For several years, AI has slowly become part of music creation from start to finish. From generating drum loops to writing song melodies, AI algorithms can carry out virtually every step in music production.

Now that algorithms are landing record deals and being sold at auction houses, traditional artists must reckon with their role in artistic production. It has long been understood that AI and robotics will not fundamentally challenge the role of the artist in society. After all, the creation of art is a profoundly human act that relies on our relationship with existence. How could an algorithm ever come close to reproducing such a human action? And yet.

Recent leaps in AI technology mean that a reckoning with these issues needs to take place sooner than later. Few can argue with the appeal of AI in preserving, protecting, and recreating art. But many fear that AI will transform the act of art creation for worse. Art is supposed to be unique. It is supposed to be the most human of endeavours. So what does it mean if a computer programme is able to copy and even surpass the world of real life artists?

Ultimately, AI’s relationship with art is positive insofar as it advances society’s artistic production. By either supplementing, preserving, or protecting culture, AI is pushing humanity forward. Concerns of AI rendering the role of the artist obsolete, while valid in some cases, do not reflect the true potential of the technology to expand artistic production. By making art more accessible, AI platforms will actually spur innovation. The debates around how the technology influences culture are indeed intrinsic to the act of artistic production.

Art is about wrestling with difficult topics. It is about reflecting on the past, debating the present, and forecasting the future. The place of AI in art perfectly reflects these parameters. As such, AI can be seen as a positive step forward. What we should worry about is when the debate and discussion ends. If we blindly accept changes in the cultural space without discussing the topic in detail, something profound will be lost and art will be changed forever.