AI, Art, and Dictionaries

So, a philosopher from Harvard wrote an article about whether or not artificial intelligence is capable of producing art.

This left me with two major questions: First, how do we define artificial intelligence? Second, how do we define art? I believe the answer to the question hinges on these two things.

Strictly speaking, a computer is capable of creating aesthetically pleasing pieces of media, and have been doing so for decades. Whether an audio visualization counts as art due to them being a result of a computer following a strict set of programming guidelines is the nature of the question – how few inputs does it take before the definition crosses over from ‘program’ to ‘AI’?

The term ‘AI’ seems to be a common enough buzzword, but I don’t think that Data or HAL9000 were deemed AI’s because they could tell bees from 3s with good accuracy (spare a thought for ‘Robot’ from Lost in Space who never even got a name). The Google Duplex system is a bit closer, but even it is incredibly easy to trip up even while staying on topic. Watson is good at jeopardy, but its success in its core purpose – cancer treatment – is a bit less rosy. I submit that current generation of what is called ‘AI’ consists of many very good incremental improvements, and is to be lauded. However, I don’t think it is correct to assign the description of “artificial intelligence” to a computer that can win Jeopardy but not understand the humor behind saying “let’s finish, chicks dig me”.

On the flip side, let’s discuss ‘art’. Though this video has its flaws (most notably comparing the best of the past with the worst of the present), the takeaway here is that what does and doesn’t constitute ‘art’ is so subjective that even defining it is subjective. If I, as a DJ, play a good set for a live event, is it art? If I do the same thing and post the recording on Mixcloud, does it then become art? If I produce a song using the sounds and plugins of Ableton or FL Studio and nobody else hears it, is it art? Does it become art if I do this a dozen times and release an album? Is is more or less ‘art’ than Handel’s The Messiah? Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder, or is there really a need for some sort of a governing body who defines what ‘art’ is, especially for exhibitions? If the latter, then how do those people ultimately decide? As one example, to what end does context play a role – does a piece of graffiti become art because it was painted on the Berlin Wall rather than an abandoned subway tunnel or a chalkboard frozen in time?

The fact that it is so difficult to define what ‘art’ really is makes the question of AI producing art fundamentally unsolvable. If art is is defined by self-expression, then the definition of AI would need to include a ‘self’, and that AI would need to have something to express. If art can only come from emotion, then the entire wing dedicated to furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on shaky ground since a nontrivial number of those pieces were simply ‘ornate contract work’ whose artistic merit is commonly tied to their owners or context. If art is defined solely as something aesthetically pleasing, then “$5 Million, 1 Terabyte” doesn’t fit that bill (unless the case counts as art), but assisted CGI does.

Once we can settle on how to consistently define ‘art’, then we can talk about whether AI can do it. If art can’t be defined, then the source and inspiration become irrelevant, ironically meaning that one can equally argue that AI is capable of creating art and that humans cannot.