Ai-Da sits behind a desk, a paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, then back down, dabbing another drop of paint on the canvas. A realistic portrait takes shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass for the work of a human artist.
Ai-Da is billed as the “first robot to paint like an artist”, and an exhibition of his work, called Leaping in the Metaverse, inaugurated at the Venice Biennale.
Ai-Da paints portraits of seated subjects using a robotic hand attached to her realistic female figure. She is also able to speak, giving detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and her attitudes towards technology. She even gave a TEDx talk on “The Intersection of Art and AI” in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, Ai-Da’s creators have also experimented with having her write and perform her own poetry.
But how to interpret the production of Ai-Da? Should his paintings and poetry be considered original or creative? Are these works really art?
Art is subjective
What discussions of AI and creativity often overlook is the fact that creativity is not an absolute quality that can be objectively defined, measured and reproduced. When we describe an object – for example, a child’s drawing – as creative, we project onto it our own assumptions about culture.
Indeed, art never exists in isolation. It always needs someone to give it “art” status. And the criteria for whether you think something is art are informed both by your individual expectations and by broader cultural conceptions.
If we extend this line of thinking to AI, it follows that no AI application or robot can objectively be “creative”. It is always us (the humans) who decide if what the AI has created is art.
In our recent research, we propose the concept of the “Lovelace effect” to refer to when and how machines, such as robots and AI, are considered original and creative. The Lovelace Effect – named after 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, often called the first computer programmer – shifts the focus from the technological capabilities of machines to the reactions and perceptions of those machines by humans.
The programmer of an AI application or the designer of a robot does not just use technical means to make the public see his machine as creative. It also goes through the presentation: how, where and why we interact with a technology; how do we talk about this technology; and where we feel technology fits into our personal and cultural contexts.
In the eyes of the viewer
Our reception of Ai-Da is indeed informed by various clues that suggest his status as “human” and “artist”. For example, Ai-Da’s robotic figure looks a lot like a human – she’s even called “her,” with a feminine-sounding name that not-so-subtly suggests an influence from Ada Lovelace.
This femininity is further affirmed by the blunt bob that frames her face (though she’s sported other funky hairstyles in the past), perfectly slicked back eyebrows and painted lips. Indeed, Ai-Da looks a lot like the original character from the 2001 film. Amelie. She’s a woman we’ve seen before, whether in movies or in our everyday lives.
Ai-Da also wears conventional “artsy” clothing, including overalls, mixed fabric patterns, and eccentric cuts. In these outfits, she produces paintings that look like a human might have made them, and are sometimes framed and displayed among human works.
We also talk about her as we would talk about a human artist. An article in the Guardian, for example, pays homage to “the world premiere of his solo exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale”. If we didn’t know Ai-Da was a robot, we could easily come to appreciate his work as we would any other artist.
Some may see paintings produced by robots as coming from creative computers while others may be more skeptical, given that robots act on clear human instructions. In any event, the attributions of creativity never depend solely on technical configurations: no computer is objectively creative. On the contrary, the attributions of computational creativity are largely inspired by the contexts of reception. In other words, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
As the Lovelace effect shows, through particular social cues, the public is encouraged to view production as art, systems as artists, and computers as creative elements. Much like the frames around Ai-Da’s paintings, the frames we use to talk about the release of AI indicate whether or not what we’re looking at can be called art. But, as with any work of art, your appreciation of the AI output is ultimately up to your own interpretation.
Leah Henrickson is Senior Lecturer in Digital Media at the University of Leeds; Simone Natale is Associate Professor of Media Theory and History at the University of Turin. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.