49th St. Gallen Symposium "Capital for Purpose": 8–10 May 2019


Robotica Artis Magistra: Can robots produce art like a human being?

To see if people could easily differentiate computer-generated art from that produced by humans, we asked 20 people at the St. Gallen Symposium to look at a series of four portraits. Three were painted by humans; one was digitally generated and applied the style of an artist to a photo, using machine learning and robotic arms. Could our participants see the difference between the human and computerized touch?

As they examined the four paintings, the uncertainty was unanimous: How could they tell for certain that one looked more “human” than the other? “There are so many types of art. We have seen a hundred different styles through the centuries, so the robot could have imitated pretty much anything,” author and publisher Gerhard Schwarz pointed out.

In the end, only four out of twenty participants managed to spot the “robot” painting, the pink portrait of a woman. That’s a worse outcome than if participants had selected a painting at random.

The survey highlighted a challenge: What does robotic art look like? The answer is unsettling: Anything. Machines can copy any style you want them to, if you can program them to learn.

The way the actual art piece is made represents another challenge, though. Robots can add filters to your photos. They can learn to apply an artist’s style to a photo, or mix it with a scribbling. They can also push the deceit a step further and, with a robotic arm, brush, and paint, create a painting visually similar to a human’s. Furthermore, your robot can develop its own approach using machine learning, and develop a style by analysing the data from hundreds of human paintings.

Four portraits - Three painted by humans, one by a robot. Would you spot which one?

But is that art? “When a beginner learns to do art - whether it’s composing music, painting or cooking - he will have to copy somebody else’s style,” explains Vu Huynh, a Vietnamese entrepreneur who worked on a project to teach children with disabilities English by integrating arts and digital tools. Is the result - done pretty much without creativity - art? Huynh does not think so. “Being an artist is more than learning how to use a brush and paint. They need inspiration to create something meaningful.”

Yemeni artist and photographer Yumna Al-Arashi agrees. “Humans give importance to whom made the painting, not just the skills attached to it.”

As you saw the four paintings, what came to your mind? Most participants in our little survey (70%) thought that abstract painting, like the first and the second, is a characteristic human way of being creative. Others looked at the way it was painted: curves and precision are indeed still pretty hard to realise for a robotic arm. But most of them thought of the use of filters to imitate the human way of painting, and thought the third and fourth paintings could have been such result, hence the high ratings.

This experiment raises the question of the impact artificial intelligence will have in the creative fields. “Not knowing which one was made by a robot makes me feel bad for artists. AI will probably change their job, maybe even replace them for contracts like the art pieces we see in hotel rooms,” says Daniel Sawyer, a PhD candidate at the California Institute of Technology. “I just hope it is the artist who gets the recognition and who gets paid.”

So should artists worry about robots coming for their creative work, this typical human asset everyone assumed would be a guarantee for the jobs of the future?

“I’m not afraid of the impact AI will have in the future of arts. People really need a human connection to enjoy it,” says Al-Arashi. “Art has almost always been connected to the fact that it is made by a certain artist. They are representative of their times, and tend to be personalities and voices rather than just skilled technicians.”

Huynh sees the field adapting to technology, for better or worse. “The authentic, creative artists will have to raise their standards and prove that their art is actually worth more than that of a robot,” she says. “Because yes, robots will make meaningless art, but also cheaper art.”

The coming challenge for artists will be embracing technologies and finding a way to justify charging higher prices for their work. But the job itself is not in danger: “We created new forms of art throughout history. Every new generation copies the past and transforms it to make it better.” Maybe robots and artists will be allies, in the end.

I’m not afraid of the impact AI will have in the future of arts. People really need a human connection to enjoy it.