When Oxford art gallery director Aidan Meller and his team created Ai-Da, a human-form robot that can draw and paint using “machine learning” algorithms, they sought to challenge commonly held ideas of what art is.1 Their website claims that the idea that “art is entirely a human affair” is no longer appropriate and that “Ai-Da creates art because art no longer has to be restrained by the requirement of human agency alone.”2 (They also claim that machines and algorithms are replacing human agency, an error I may address separately. Here I want to focus on their claims about art.)
Meller and his team’s achievement in designing and building a machine capable of creating intricate, original images and “learning” to do so in a range of styles is impressive. I commend them on their hard work and their contribution to the development of computer and robotics technology.
That said, their claims about Ai-Da’s creations evidence a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and function of art. . . .
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1. Meller and his team use the term “artificial intelligence,” which is misleading. It is used nowadays to refer to machines that mimic the actions and abilities of humans but do not possess a sense of identity or the ability to think abstractly or form concepts. This is entirely different from the original conception of the term in science fiction to refer to a fully conscious artificial mind. “Machine learning” is also a little problematic as a machine cannot “learn” in the same sense as a conscious, thinking mind, but some can add new information to their programming and adjust it accordingly by themselves, and there isn’t currently a good alternative word to “learning” to describe this.
2. Ai-Da website, Aidan Meller Gallery, 2019, https://www.ai-darobot.com/artwork.
3. Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1971), 35–36.
4. “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” Art & Electronic Media Online Companion, https://artelectronicmedia.com/en/artwork/imaginary-landscape-no-4-2/ (accessed October 21, 2021).