Is there Art in Artificial Intelligence?

31 October 2016

Picture the scene: the movie executives, producers and the director sit as the audience in a horse-shoe. At the centre, a humanoid robot “pitches” an idea for a feature film. Within seconds one of the producers rejects it as “too fluffy” and the others agree. Rejected. The robot thinks again, and produces another plot on the spot, modified to take the feedback into account. By the end of the one hour meeting, the director has three new scripts in development; the Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine driving the robot has already produced the 120 page drafts.

Sound fanciful? It is. But the bones of this kind of process are beginning to emerge.

The most effective stories follow a well-trodden path. Literary academics since the Ancient Greeks have been classifying stories based on their form and the modern consensus seems to be that there are 6 or 7 basic plots. This consensus has been reinforced by various Big Data analyses including the Hedonometer, which has analysed 1,700 literary classics and grouped them into 6 basic plots based on the patterns of sentiment progression it found in the words. And wherever patterns can be found, AI is one step closer to producing variations on those patterns.

And yet, the idea of a computer producing a coherent story that isn’t simply a “photo-fit” of other stories instinctively feels impossible. Admittedly, based purely on logistics, film is arguably one of the more “complicated” forms of art, so we can assume that AI will struggle to compete in this arena for at least a few years. But the other form of story, the novel, does not have this excuse; it can, after all, be produced by one person, a pen and a piece of paper.

AI Art does have some early runs on the board, producing poetry which has convinced literary critics, images which evoke the old masters. Google’s Magenta project is using image recognition capability in reverse, to create images of a given object or theme. Think of all those times you’ve walked round a modern art gallery muttering “anyone could have produced that” – that “anyone” now includes computers.

The thing that differentiates these early successes from the daunting task of creating an AI “story” is perhaps the degree to which the value is in the “eye of the beholder”. Abstract or poetic works require the observer to make their own interpretation, whereas a story (and to some extent music) has to be much more rigorously structured and comprehensive to be convincing.

The jury is out on whether true creativity will ever emerge from AI. Some believe that AI will never have the “intent” which is, for them, a defining requirement of anything creative. Others say that as soon as a human gives an instruction to an AI tool, there is an “intent” and therefore this test is passed. In the end it hinges on whether creativity simply comes from stirring around a heap of influences, or whether there’s an element of creativity that will never be produced from source data, processing power and computational neural networks.

One thing that is almost certain is that AI, like the screenwriting-bot above, will take market share. Successful AI which produces pleasing images or stories from a mix and match of elements from popular examples will no doubt proliferate. But every AI will need its sales team and programmer, who will live or die by the strength of its ability to select and present the raw artistic material. So perhaps a script-writer might become an editor/agent/brand for his AI system, spending less time sweating over a keyboard and more time developing and honing. This may be simply another example of automation enabling us to concentrate on the truly creative activities.


Amazon and Netflix are already starting down this path using data analytics to develop hit shows like House of Cards, although not as advanced as AI. If you're interested take a look at this TED talk on the subject by Sebastian Wernicke:

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