I, For One, Welcome Our New Artistic Overlords.

Roald Dahl’s story The Great Automatic Grammatizator is about a young man who builds a machine that can write short stories. He then upgrades it to crank out novels which become bestsellers and he builds a whole business around licensing the names of well-known authors—he puts their names on the machine-produced books and they get a nice royalty check and never have to work again. The authors who hold out against the encroaching technology are put under increasing pressure and—spoiler alert—the story ends with the narrator’s haunting plea:

And all the time things get worse for those who hesitate to sign their names. This very moment, as I sit here listening to the crying of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk. Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

It’s a literary version of the legend of John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man who went up against a steam-powered drilling machine, or that episode of The Office where Dwight goes up against the company’s sales website. And there are other, actual tales of humans against machines. Gary Kasparov was beaten at chess by Deep Blue, Watson did pretty well on Jeopardy!, and there’s a computer program called Sibelius that can not only notate but even compose music.

And there are lots of programs that can turn photos into paintings, and even programs that can match your face to a work of art. And there’s a new one, AI Portraits, that takes your picture and turns it into a painting in varying styles, and with varying degrees of success.

I love Goya’s work but I’m not sure I’d want my portrait painted by him, and this reminds me that when Picasso painted a portrait of his first wife Olga Khokhlova she insisted that he paint a realistic picture. She told him, “I want to recognize my face.”

Naturally when you get a new toy like this the first thing you want to do is break it. AI Portraits won’t accept pictures if it can’t find faces and it does terrible things to pet pictures.Its results with other pictures are a little more interesting.What really interests me, though, is the question of why we prefer—or at least think we prefer—a painting, a musical piece, or a story by a human hand over one done by a machine, if we can even tell the difference. And if we can’t tell the difference what does that say about us and our abilities? I think I prefer art made by a human being because there’s, well, a personal aspect to it. No matter how small or trivial a work of art made by a person is the sum of all they are at that point in their lives. There’s also a psychological drama to a person creating a work of art, or playing a game of chess, or driving steel, that a machine lacks. A machine doesn’t get distracted or unnerved. For the machine there are no stakes to winning or losing–there’s only winning or losing, and the machine doesn’t see either one as success or failure. It just starts over from the beginning. Then again maybe that’s just the way I’m wired.

11 Comments

  1. SkyeEnt

    Those AI portraits are fascinating, I suspect that my black labradors would not come out great.
    I always wonder why people buy artworks for millions of (insert currency here). There seems to be a vast number of people who have more money than they know what to do with. I struggle to tell the difference between most abstract art and a work by my nephews and nieces. To me, the latter would have more value. I guess the more you know the story behind art, the greater it’s power. That is what gives it a value, and you the ability to appreciate it.
    SkyeEnt recently posted…Butterflies and bugsMy Profile

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    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Most art, in my opinion, is overpriced, no matter who produced it or the story behind it, and frequently the high prices turn out to only be for tax purposes–a way for people with too much money to hold on to their money.
      I think the work by your nieces and nephews does have value. If it’s valuable to you that’s what matters.

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  2. Bookstooge

    My first exposure to Mr Roboto was on the tv show “Chuck” where some hack musicians play this song at the main characters wedding. It was pretty funny.
    Bookstooge recently posted…The Seven Deadly Book Sins (Tag)My Profile

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    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s crazy–I’ve never seen “Chuck” but I found the clip and it was pretty funny. The original video included scenes from the Disney movie “The Black Hole” which was my favorite at the time, and a friend would call me up every time the video was on MTV every time it was on. Ah, those days when we didn’t have video on demand.

      Reply
  3. Anonymole

    No human laid a hand to the colors of a sunset, to the V-flight of autumn geese, to the splash and whimsy of an alpine meadow. Perhaps beauty has no hallmark, the beholder its true judge.
    Anonymole recently posted…Stewie the Stoic: HolidayMy Profile

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    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s lovely, and an interesting thought–there is a strange futility to human efforts to recreate what nature has already created.

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  4. mydangblog

    I love this—I always knew you were a Renaissance man and now you have the portrait to prove it!
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    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      There is no higher compliment than being called a Renaissance man, at least to me. Or a Renaissance person.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    It’s great to recognize all the wonderful faces here, Chris.
    Ann Koplow recently posted…Day 2430: That’s it.My Profile

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    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I was pleased to recognize your face at your blog–your AI portrait came out wonderfully recognizable.

      Reply
  6. josh

    wow, this is nice artists work, remarkable job What a stuff of un-ambiguity of precious knowledge. I love the job you did on this post. thanks for sharing it for us.
    josh recently posted…WhatsApp Chatbot – WhatsApp Messenger Chatbot | Chatbot on WhatsAppMy Profile

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