By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology (alumnus)
I use [technology] like a painter uses watercolours. And my work is meant to be very human.Leung Kei-cheuk (Gaybird), Hong Kong-based artist
Over the summer, I worked as a marketing intern at an accounting firm and my role involved drafting reports on company-related news and other economic shenanigans. I heard, read, wrote and breathed terms such as ‘modern technology’ and ‘the digital age’ for three long months. During my news-reading routine, I came across an article discussing two portraits ‘generated’ by an algorithm, that is, ‘art’ produced by artificial intelligence (AI). But what intrigued me most was the subtitle: “Machines can create pictures but are they art?” This question carried many, arguably cultural, assumptions. In response, I would like to explore two questions with an anthropological perspective:
- Why are we often fazed by using ‘modern’ technology to produce art, especially when the technology itself is more directly involved in its production?
- And what is so ‘human’ about creativity?
To be or not to be modern?
By all means, they seem to say…let us not mix up heaven and earth, the global stage and the local scene, the human and the nonhuman.Bruno Latour (1993: 3)
The question posed by the article suggests a perceived repulsion between ‘machines’ and ‘humans’ (even if it is physically possible). Yes, we do acknowledge their coexistence, and even frequently celebrate the symbiotic relationship between the two. Yet, we still see a long history of popular media portraying them in antagonistic dialogue, from Western films such as Metropolis and Ex Machina to Japanese narratives such as Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass (Figure 2).
|Metropolis||1927||A German science-fiction silent film set in a futuristic city portrays the moral conflict of how people are made to work endlessly, as if they were mechanistic parts of machinery. It has influenced the international production of many other similarly-themed performative works up to date.|
|Ghost in the Shell (Japanese Original)||1995||In a population with humans, robots and cyborgs, the Japanese animation follows a cyborg federal agent who is trying to catch The Puppet Master, a criminal who hacks into and controls cyborg citizens to do evil. In 2017, this was adapted into a Western live-action movie starring Scarlett Johansson.|
|Psycho-Pass||2012||A Japanese animated TV series set in 22nd century dystopian Japan, where the government enforces a police system powered by AI to recognise the ‘threat level’ of individuals by examining their psychometrics (i. e. Psycho-Pass). After joining the police force in the first episode, the main protagonist struggles in choosing to believe or doubt the system. Two seasons have aired and the series has been adapted into a few other media forms.|
|Ex Machina||2014||The Western live-action film tells of a programmer chosen to be part of a Turing test that judges the ‘humanness’ of a robot’s behaviour. The robot eventually outsmarts its (or her) human creators, leaving us with a sense of paranoia.|
Figure 2. Table of examples in popular media portraying antagonistic interactions between humans and machines (compiled by author 2018).
You can get a computer to paint like Van Gogh but that in itself wouldn’t be interesting. It’s how an artist experiments with technology that is intriguing. In the future, artists using artificial intelligence as a tool may be seen as being as controversial as when artists first switched to oil-paint tubes in the 19th century.Carla Rapoport, founder of Lumen Prize for digital art
Human versus machine, nature versus culture, creativity versus algorithm, and subject versus object. French anthropologist Bruno Latour (1993: 10) calls these conceptual pairings products of a bigger dilemma of ‘modernisation’, urging us to carefully evaluate how we have been using such terms in our everyday lives: “When the word ‘modern’, ‘modernization’, or ‘modernity’ appears, we are defining, by contrast, an archaic and stable past…the word is always being thrown into the middle of a fight…where there are winners and losers, Ancients and Moderns.” Teaching at our very own UCL Anthropology Department, medical anthropologist Aaron Parkhurst (2012) proposes an alternative way of thinking about the increasingly intimate interactions between humans and emerging technologies. Instead of focusing on the controversy (of new technology disrupting conventional methods), we should look at how these new techniques diversify the ways in which our bodies engage with our surroundings. Throughout human history, innovations have always been disruptive at first, but with time our adaptive nature tends to make (most of) them socially acceptable. Today, using Photoshop to compose surreal photography and design company logos are deemed as commonplace. As Carla Rapoport implies, art-producing AI may soon follow suit.
What does it even mean to ‘be human’ anyway?
The artwork bears no obvious hallmarks of artificial intelligence. The face is a mangled, bloody mess – butchered, perhaps.Enid Tsui, author of Artificial intelligence and art – can machines be creative?
As Enid Tsui (2018) describes paintings produced by AI in the article, her word choice (e.g. “disfigured” and “artistically omitted”) exaggerates their interpretable ‘humanness’, claiming that they bear “no obvious hallmarks of artificial intelligence.” We can assume she is not literally saying that art by humans is only restricted to abstract messiness (stylistic genres such as realism have a long line-up of artists). Still, people often associate certain characteristics of an art piece to a spectrum between ‘more’ and ‘less human’. But what does ‘more human’ actually mean?
At a time where the relationship between humans and computers is becoming increasingly blurry, cultural anthropologist Daniela Cerqui (2002) suggests a definition of being human as being able to ‘produce meaning’. To elaborate, “it is only because we are able to give meaning to things (expression of our humankind) that we are able to share the same values (expression of our social nature)” (Cerqui 2002: 106). If we apply this perspective to the article’s subtitle question (Machines can create pictures but are they art?), we should consider how giving meaning to artwork comes from at least two sides – the artist and the audience. So rather than trying to redefine creativity and humanity to include or exclude AI as art-makers, I find myself asking two more questions:
- Does something have to be given meaning from both producer and audience in order for it to be acknowledged as ‘art’?
- Even then, can you consider it as ‘art’ without acknowledging its producer as an ‘artist’?
The magic of change
Modernity wanted to eliminate every magic thought, but progress itself became an object of magic belief.Lelièpvre 1997, as cited in Cerqui 2002: 105
Maybe we can label it as AA (artificial art), postmodernity and posthumanism, or just being creative with creativity. Regardless of its nature or direction, it is a form of progress that we can celebrate for, be bitter about, or remain silent in. In any case, technological change always brings about cultural and moral implications (and vice versa), moving us in ways more than one, and that is something we can all marvel at.
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Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern (C. Porter, trans.). Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Parkhurst, A. (2012) Becoming Cyborgian: Procrastinating the Singularity. The New Bioethics 18(1): 68-80.
Tsui, E. (2018) Artificial Intelligence and Art – Can Machines be Creative? Digital artworks show they can. South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/arts-music/article/2169123/artificial-intelligence-and-art-can-machines-be [accessed 22 October 2018].