AI and Art I: The Setup

AI and Art I: The Setup

Arts January 14, 2019 / By Mike LaBossiere
AI and Art I: The Setup

Setting the stage for a discussion of AI and art.

As a philosopher, I tend to be concerned with meta-aesthetic matters, such as trying to define “art” or sorting out whether an AI can create “true” art. David Pogue has addressed the subject of AI and art more pragmatically by focusing on concerns about the economic impact of AI on art and artists. That is, the question of whether AI will be taking the jobs of artists. The impact of AI on art is certainly worthy of philosophical and pragmatic consideration, thus this series of brief essays of which this is the first.

As Pogue noted, AI (broadly construed) is already producing original paintings and music. It should be noted that these computer programs are relatively limited. For example, Amper is a guided system for assembling samples rather than an AI Mozart or Prince.  To use an analogy, it is like an exoskeleton for music: it does the hard work but must be guided by a human operator. It is, however, capable of producing high quality results—those worried about digitized junk music will be pleasantly surprised.

As researchers and companies improve the technology, AI will continue to expand its reach into the realm of art and will also increase the variety and quality of its creations. As such, concerns about AI and art are not the stuff of science-fiction, but a real-world concern right now. And, like climate change, something that will only increase.

From a philosophical standpoint, a critical question is whether AI created works are art. The obvious problem with sorting this out is that there is, as far as I know, no necessary and sufficient definition of “art” that would allow a decisive and objective answer. As it now stands, the question can only be answered within the context of a specific theory. That is, the specific question is whether AI art is art under this or that theory. To use an analogy, being a work of art is rather like being a sin. Whether something is a sin or not is a matter of a specific religion. That is, the specific question of whether an action or thought is a sin is whether it is a sin in this or that religion (or interpretation of the religion). This is distinct from the question of whether it truly is a sin. Answering that would require determining which religion has it right (and it might be none of them—there might be no sin at all). As such, I cannot answer whether AI art is art with certainty until I know which, if any, theory of art has it right (if any). That said, it is possible to muddle about with the usual cobbled together messes of existing theories.

One broad distinction between theories that is especially relevant to AI art is between theories that focus primarily on the work and theories that focus primarily on the creator. In general terms, the first sort of approach involves art requiring certain properties in the work. The other sort of approach involves requiring that the work be created in a certain way by a certain sort of being. These approaches will be discussed in upcoming essays.

From a pragmatic standpoint, the key concern about AI and art is the impact of AI on the economics of art. This includes the general concern about machines taking jobs from humans and the impact of automation on the economic value of products. To illustrate, if someone who needs music for a Youtube video or TV show can simply be guided through its creation by an AI, then they have little reason to hire human musicians to create it for them—unless the humans are cheaper. As another example, if an AI can create thousands of original digital images with each click of the mouse, then what impact will this have on the value of visual art? While it is tempting to think that machines will not be able to match the creative abilities of humans, this seems to be mere wishful thinking—if programs are not already “taking jobs” from human artists, they soon will be. While these are practical matters, they also raise philosophical concerns and will be addressed as well in upcoming essays.


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