Of Art, Algorithms and Humanity


We are at the strangest of crossroads, a series of changes that challenge and upend what have been the core elements of the human experience since the beginning of our species. Nothing perhaps cuts so close to that core as what is happening and will happen to the meaning and place of art in our lives. Art here understood as everything from the music we compose to our paintings and drawings to the stories we tell or the films and videos we create.

For all of our history it has been we ourselves who created art, and perhaps we might even twist Ben Franklin who defined us as a “tool making animal”  to say that humankind is an art making animal. Just now we are beginning to have companions and competitors in these acts of creation. Joining us are increasingly intelligent machines- art creating algorithms that are not only already producing art, but are daily getting better at it. It’s a good time, then, to stop and wonder what the rise of these algorithmic artists will mean.

Human beings have been making art seemingly since our very beginning. We didn’t need the rise of complex human societies in the form of cities to create it.  Like the lost sketches of our childhood, most of our initial art didn’t make it into the future succumbing to dissolution by the elements, creating a great gap of silence between us and our prehistoric forebears, a fact that made the discovery of the Lascaux caves in 1940 all the more astounding. Today, you couldn’t see the Lascaux caves even if you had the wherewithal to get yourself to southern France- they have been sealed off for the caves’ protection. Modern humans with our numbers and our groping are rightly considered a new form of destructive element that can destroy what it loves through its very curiosity. But, thanks to the miracle of the Internet one can visit the wondrous caves without ever leaving the comfort of one’s home.

What strikes me as question begging in seeing the caves if only in this limited way is just how clearly its artists were versions of us. Their drawings putting me in mind of nothing so much as the chalk sketches of my daughters. And yet, we are so different from these artists in terms of the world we live in and the understanding we have of it that the gap between us is a chasm. Or better, we can understand, even if to a limited extent these artists but were we able to rip them from the past and bring them into the present it is very unlikely that they would ever understand us.


Over and above human biology, what it seems we share most with the artists of Lascaux is the natural desire to create these sorts of representations. No human society has ever existed without art. We are born with the desire to create these strange models of our world. From the moment my daughters could pick up a crayon they were drawing, from the instant they could hit one object off of another they were making music. With sentences came incredible stories and “plays”.

There is a debate currently raging as to whether one form of art, literature, makes us more moral the best response to which I have seen is that it makes us more human. But perhaps we should say more than human. Art, or good art at least, has the capacity to expand human consciousness far out beyond the boundaries of the self and therefore is part and parcel of those other endeavors of our intelligence such as mathematics, science, philosophy,  history and religion that allow us to spread out the fabric of our awareness over all that we can see. The creation and even consumption of art is a mark of our intelligence and it can therefore be assumed that as our machines become more intelligent they will become more artistic as well. It is already happening.

Algorithms already shape our artistic choices. A program at Amazon suggests what books you should buy, and similar algorithms at Pandora or Netflix knows your tastes in music or movies as well or perhaps better than you do. It isn’t only that algorithms guide our artistic choices in some cases they are used to decide what gets made or heard.

As pointed out by Christopher Steiner in his Automate This a company like Epagogix is being used by film production companies to decide what movies get made or how much to invest in particular films allowing movie companies to recognize a flop before the director even shouts “action”. (75) Steiner shows us how the same thing is being done for music with a company like Music X-Ray which allows musicians to upload their songs into a huge database that can be searched by music producers for, among other things, potential hits. Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber beware. (87)  I have little doubt that similar technologies will eventually be applied to books allowing publishers to find the “Harry Potters” among the flood of manuscripts they receive every day.

In the most basic sense the way in which these film and music sorting algorithms work is that some target criteria is defined, say films grossing over a certain amount, and then the massive data searching capacities of artificial intelligence are applied. At least at this stage technology seems to have empowering potential for individual artists. Their work still exists within a sea of other creations but now at least can be found.

At the moment, on account of its expense, this AI sorting only benefits those producing hits- that is work with the broadest commercial appeal, which most of us hopefully realize is not necessarily the best or most groundbreaking art. We can at least hope that as the cost to create and run these sorts of algorithms decline they will be used to sort for artistic criteria beyond mere commercial appeal.

That’s how algorithms are being used to sort art, but what about actually making it? Music, perhaps because it so closely resembles the mathematics of intelligent machines has been the first to fall here. As only one example: in 2012 on the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth the London Symphony Orchestra performed Hello World! a set of musical pieces composed purely by an algorithm named IAMUS. It does not seem a huge step from algorithms sorting through really big data sets to find hit songs to them being used as tools to allow artists to create hit songs or other productions in the first place or even composing such songs themselves.

The next few decades are likely to experience a tension regarding the question of what these artistic algorithms are actually for?  This will not be another version of the tired  neo-luddite vs technophile dispute but a debate over how to use technology based on different interpretations of its meaning. Are artistic algorithms tools to help human beings create art and find audiences or are they artists themselves? I have no good answer to the question.

Two seemingly contradictory things seem clear to me. The first is that algorithms and artificial intelligence will further expand the fabric of our consciousness. As Jeff Hawkins put it in a recent interview about the future of AI:

When I ask myself, What’s the purpose of life?, I think a lot of it is figuring out how the world works. These machines will help us do that. Many, many years from now, we’ll be able to build machines that are super-physicists and super-mathematicians, and explore the universe. The idea that we could accelerate our accretion of knowledge is very exciting.

Such expansion seems unlikely to be be limited to our models of the universe,  biology or social structure, but will embrace our artistic horizon as well.

The second thing that rings true is that as long as we continue to posses the type of intelligence that defines us as humans we will continue to create art for we are born artists just as we are born scientists and spiritual seekers. How those two aspects of our artistic future resolve themselves is beyond me but perhaps a hint at the major possibilities can be found in the caves of Lascaux.

Perhaps, as in the caves, we will establish places where we can practice our art free from the threat of dissolution that comes from contact with the world. However, the world against which our art will need to be preserved will not be the natural world but what Andrew McAfee calls the New Machine Age we are entering. Art is for human beings to create machines are tools.

Another possibility is that we will have a version of Stanislaw Lem’s Incommunicability Thesis. Machines will become extremely proficient in composing music or perhaps even writing books but they will just be running sophisticated algorithms and have no idea what these productions actually mean. Likewise,for the majority of human beings who are not high level programmers the art the machines create will provide no reflection whatsoever of the internal states, the “thoughts” of the machine. If Lem had been an anthropologist he would have been the strictest of cultural relativists. In this view, not only could the artists of Lascaux never understand us, we could never understand them. You need to live in the worldview of a culture to understand it beyond the level of a nearly empty abstraction.

As a last possibility, maybe the coming age of artistic algorithms will so expand our imaginative horizons that it will appear that our past was nothing more than being trapped in a cave of shadows. That we will have at long last emerged into the sublime brilliance of the light.



33 comments on “Of Art, Algorithms and Humanity

  1. Yes it would be sad if computers took over the arts. There’d be no more one hit wonders from obscure musical acts with songs that should never have gotten into the charts eg The Funky Gibbon by the Goodies.

  2. segmation says:

    We certainly can learn from art and all its algorithms, especially from cave art as well. Love your blog.

  3. stillstella says:

    All true. What’s humanity without art?

  4. Not quite sure I understood your comment about the caves of Lascaux putting you in mind of nothing more then your daughters chalk drawings..are you using it as a metaphor for the trajectory of technology? I believe that the sophistication and intelligence of those cave drawings is lost in the comparison. Perhaps the individual world of experience made visual by our artistic daubs will be made nothing more than a commercially accepted pattern, although I accept that art will reflect and be in service to the “who decides” as it always has been, probably even in the caves all those years ago…………

    • Rick Searle says:

      I was using the comparison as an illustration of art and beginnings. We see art at the beginning of the emergence of intelligence in our species, at the beginning of our intelligence as individuals and will perhaps see it with the beginning of artificial forms of intelligence. Although, I should explore your point about comparative sophistication.

      Not to play the obtusely proud father type, but I find what my daughters are up to incredibly sophisticated. They are discovering forms right before my eyes: “this is a line”, “I can curve the line back in out itself to make a circle”, “this is a shape” “I can draw something inside the shape” “I can combine shapes and lines to make a picture that looks “like” something” “these lines and circles are a dog”. etc etc.

      I think we are so used to how natural this is for human beings that we miss out on just how incredibly intelligent and just how deeply miraculous such artistic seeing truly is.

      • Justin says:

        Excellent post. Your essay clearly illustrates the uniqueness of human beings in the sense that they are, essentially, a biological computer. What other questions can you answer knowing that fact? Maybe, the way we teach our children should be the focus if we want to solve world problems; because if we want to find the solutions, then we need humans that are equipped with the right data inputs. 🙂

      • Rick Searle says:

        Perhaps it would be better to reverse this and say that machines, should they ever exhibit something that rivals human intelligence, would essentially be a non-biological mind.

  5. thyrsday says:

    Jeff Hawkins’ misconception that the truth about the universe can be revealed in accumulated facts or data about it is a common one for scientists and analytical thinkers. The scientific perspective is just one of many perspectives – it is subject to limitation by emphasizing some aspects of the world and hiding others – but it is a perspective which science is particularly convinced by. That is why we have art: to remind us of the broader context of live as it is lived, of uncertainty (not necessarily bewilderment), of the interpenetration of things, of mystery. I don’t think we need to worry about machines doing science or making art.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I think the line you draw between science and art is far too sharp. Both use methods and tools to draw some model of the world only their criteria for what makes a good model differ.

      I don’t think it’s a question of worry about machines making art- they are already making art. The question is what does, will and should this creation of art by artificial forms of intelligence mean?

      • thyrsday says:

        What it means may depend on whether there is any legitimacy to the basic assumption of the Artificial Intelligence project, namely that the mind is a kind of machine, and therefore that a machine can be a kind of mind. There are those (such as Iain McGilchrist) who suggest it is not legitimate, and that that is why the project remains unrealized. The mind is grounded in affect, and is inexorably embodied, and the sensing body is embedded in the world. The mind is not primarily, or even very effectively, an information processor. At any rate, bits of information, like the scientist’s ‘facts’, at best refer to something, are representations of some parts of the world, not the world itself.

        It is a matter more of preference rather than definitions (‘drawing sharp lines’), but the art I value does not, as you put it, draw some model of the world, it does not re-present it – it *presences* the world for me, and reintroduces me to my embodied-ness and embedded-ness.

        Can a machine do that? Perhaps, by accident, but not because it is any kind of mind.

  6. Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
    Loved this. — J.W.

  7. […] us to make potent and amazing new models of the natural world. In the long run they may allow us to radically expand the artistic, philosophical and religious horizons of intelligence creating visions of the world of which we can today barely […]

  8. interesting article. Machines can produce representations of Art in my mind, but Art for me requires a human component. Old fashioned I know but I don’t let it bother me. The idea behind the requisite human component has been brewing in my mind for many years, and I don’t have a defined theory to give you. I do not follow a particular creed or religious belief , but when I am moved by any work, I am drawing upon my personal back catalogue of human experience that informs my reaction, and I am also experiencing a connection with the artist. That connection has experienced either a universal value that is shared and expressed in the work, or a personal experience that mimics, or replicates something similar in myself, or something I have the imagination to have empathy with.
    you may be interested in a previous post I wrote

    • Rick Searle says:

      One of the things that worry me is that we will manage to create algos that are extremely good at creating art- and I am thinking primarily here in terms of music- but that have nothing behind them except a program. I totally agree with you that one of the main, perhaps the main features of art is emotional communication. If my worries prove right what we’ll be left with is art that is for the first time truly “soulless” unless that is we deem anything created by such algos to not be art in the first place even if we are unable to tell the difference between pieces composed by machines and those composed by human beings,

      • i think we produce plenty of soulless art now, and that is WITH human beings!! But I do know what you mean. The ;hope I hold is that the best art will continue to be celebrated, and I think that the emotional connection element is a key component of that art.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Right on with all of that!

  9. dkuether says:

    Very thought provoking essay. However, I am skeptical that machines will be able to make creative decisions any time in the near future. Correct me if I’m wrong, but all machine actions are strictly logical responses as opposed to innovative actions. The innovative actions could possibly develop through chemical and biological development and integration, but the electromechanical and steady state processes don’t allow responses outside our own predictions. And it’s just that, we don’t predict our art.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I suppose what you are suggesting is that machines can’t “surprise” us. From my perspective I don’t quite agree with that. Machines can be programmed to have all types of features including commands NOT to follow any preset plans of creation. In that sense the outcomes are non-deterministic and can therefore not be predicted by their creator, All sorts of natural processes work in this way. So machines might at least be said to be capable of creating art in the same way nature creates art,

  10. it’s truly exciting and frightening what computers are creating but it also goes back to the decades old question of “is digital art, art”? I know my way around photoshop but I’ve never had that emotional connection to the computer that I do when I hold a brush or smudge some charcoal, by definition it *is* art but by experience, or the experiences that led to the expression of it, it is sorely and severely lacking. . .

    I remember an assignment I had in school, I don’t remember the big descriptive word the teacher used but the assignment was to use lines to convey emotion (ex: strong bold lines convey strength, power, agression, etc.). Sometimes, when words fail, those lines become the means by which we, as humans, as artists, as living, breathing, feeling, intelligent creatures, are able to express thru those lines, and subsequently the pictures that evolve from those lines, what we’re feeling, how we’re reacting and responding to an experience and computers just can’t compete with that.

    • Rick Searle says:

      My sister is a painter and a total purists as far as her art goes- she won’t even touch a computer, so I know where you’re coming from.

      I think painters are pretty safe as far as the rise of algorithms are concerned. I mean you’ve already beaten off photography, so I am not sure what else computers can do.

      I suppose one thing they could do is help democratize artistic representation. It takes skill to wield a brush honed over years, but much less so when it comes to rendering. I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing.

      The artists who I think are likely to be most effected by the rise of algorithms are musicians- they can today compose songs in the same way Pandora has an eerie way of knowing what music we like. Again this could democratize the creation of music- imagine having never learned an instrument and “composing” a song after a breakup- though I am not sure how people who have spent the better part of their lives learning to play music will feel about this.

      And I totally agree with you- unless there is a feeling being behind the art it has no soul- computers are nowhere near such experiences to date.

  11. […] here and there, wondering at this and that, trying to find my Way. 10. Utopia or Dystopia–where past meets future 11. TreeYo Permaculture–Sustainability Education and Ecological Design 12. rarasaur–. […]

  12. phynkj4ck says:

    Reblogged this on J4ckth3m4n the singer woo page and commented:

  13. […] hold. Our (quite dumb) computers already create visually stunning and unanticipated works or art, compose music that is indistinguishable from that created in human minds, and write things none of us realize are the product of clever programs. Who’s to say that […]

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