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.