"Art has much to offer artificial intelligence"

 Photo: UOC

Photo: UOC

Elsa Velasco
Artist-scientist Ruth West and artist and academic Andrs Burbano, coordinators of the UOC's latest issue of Artnodes on art and artificial intelligence
Artist-scientist Ruth West and artist and academic Andrs Burbano


Artificial intelligence (AI) has begun to seep into many aspects of our lives; for Ruth West and Andrs Burbano, this makes the overlap between AI and art more relevant than ever. As an artist-scientist, West taps into the potential of emerging technologies to blend science and art, generating new forms of perception and knowledge in the process. What's more, she currently heads up the xREZ Art + Science Lab at the University of North Texas in the United States. Burbano is a professor at the School of Architecture and Design at Colombia's Universidad de los Andes. His exploits as a researcher and artist involve exploring the interactions between science, art and technology through the lens of various disciplines, from documentary film-making, sound and telecommunications to algorithmic cinematic narratives. Together, West and Burbano coordinated the latest issue of Artnodes, the UOC's scholarly journal on art, science and technology. Under the microscope in node 26 are the ways in which artificial intelligence, machine learning and generative models relate to art and design. Artnodes has now opened a new call for papers for issue 27, which will be entitled ‘Arts in the Time of Pandemics’.


What stands out most in your minds when you think about the collaborations that went into this issue of Artnodes?

Ruth West (RW): Putting together the issue required collaboration on many levels. Collaborating with Andres as a guest editor was a wonderful part of the journey. The depth of his knowledge and his insight as an artist and academic broadened my outlook on the historical and contemporary aspects of creative artificial intelligence. We had great conversations about the evolution of creative AI and about how the authors in this issue were able to encapsulate a whole spectrum of viewpoints of profound cultural relevance in their work. This process also gave rise to an association between Artnodes and Leonardo/ISAST that will provide a greater platform for the up-and-coming voices of the art, science and technology community. The authors' work also embraced multiple dimensions of collaboration – between disciplines and between colleagues – leading them to question the very nature of creative AI itself: Are machine learning and artificial intelligence a medium, a tool or a creative companion? Although every one of the articles has a unique point of view, readers will see that questions like this one are posed in different ways in many of them.

Andrs Burbano (AB): I think it's important to highlight the quality and variety of the contributions. For instance, we have essays from widely renowned theorists with outstanding academic careers in the United States. We also have artists writing about specific pieces, curators analyzing their exhibitions, software developers questioning their tools, data visualization experts addressing AI and data, and so on. This, coupled with the fact that the contributions originate from four different continents, women authors account for a significant portion of the issue. There are Spanish-language articles from Spain and Latin America, which makes this issue special.

How can artificial intelligence be creative?

AB: Rather than venture so far as to answer, I think it's important to keep this query present as a question. The idea that machines can be creative is undoubtedly a pot-stirrer, both for the theory of creativity and the field of machine learning. Several authors in this issue are bold enough to share their stances on the matter, ultimately allowing us to see ourselves reflected in what we consider to be the human condition or the condition of creative beings.

RW: In my work, I personally deal with the inherent tension caused by defining creativity in a context of collaboration and generative system-mediated art creation that uses, for instance, machine learning and creative AI. I don't think we can answer this question with a broad brush, so it may be better to leave it open. I can't imagine what the future of art would look like if we had a fixed view of creativity, or a resolution to this question. I agree with Andres, keeping this an open question is highly productive for not only the arts, but all areas of human endeavour.

Could you give us some examples of convergence between artificial intelligence or machine learning and the arts?

AB: One example of this convergence is the work of artists such as Memo Akten, who incites us to profoundly reflect on what we visually perceive as a mirror of how we see ourselves and how we make sense of the world. There's also Weili Shi, who developed a map of a new planet by crossing data on Earth and Mars. Another example is Mimi Onuoha, who takes a creative and critical approach to explore the relationship between AI, data, and racial issues. Overall, women are highly active in the crossover between AI and art. In any case, I ought to point out that artists have focused their work on AI and machine learning since at least the 1960s.

How might these convergences help us to evolve as humans?

AB: Questions about whether machines can think or be creative compel us to give new thought to what makes us human. Such issues can be transformative, given how disruptive they are at their core.

RW: Does technology evolve because we have collectively evolved beyond it, or do our technologies spur our own evolution? That is a complex question.

How will art, music and design change thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning?

AB: This issue of Artnodes clearly shows that these artistic manifestations are already changing; change is not something that's on its way, it's already here. We've tracked down machine learning and deep learning projects ranging from film to dance and sculpture to activism. The more interesting question is how AI will transform thanks to the contributions and debates that arise from artists' work.

What role do you think human creativity should play in this time of ever-so-rapidly-changing technologies?

AB: Human creativity is woven into the culture on many levels. It's in technological development, in how we communicate with each other, in the discourses that we build and share. What happens in the arts is that creativity is blended with other processes, expressivity, emotivity, and critical thinking. I believe that these facets of art make technologies less plain, less univocal, and richer in meanings.

RW: What the articles in this issue of Artnodes reveal is that we are only just beginning to experience the changes that will take place as machine learning and artificial intelligence become a more integral part in human creative practices.

How will art influence the evolution of artificial intelligence?

RW: In my opinion, art of all types and on all media builds bridges between us, between cultures and languages, between data and the phenomenology of the universe, to offer us unique experiences of ourselves and the world around us. Art will be the bridge between us, our essential and ineffable collective nature, and the evolution of artificial intelligence.

AB: I think art has much to offer the field of AI. It's important to understand that widely used tools nowadays, such as DeepDream, actually arose out of the necessity to visualize neural networks, to paint them if you will, to understand them better. Suddenly, that way of visualizing these networks transformed into a phenomenon of psychedelic digital images whose impact was felt around the globe. With that, it became clear that machine learning is more within artists', designers', activists', and others' reach than ever.

What ethical considerations emerge from the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the arts and design?

RW: It's essential to underline that AI-related ethical issues are not restricted to its creative use; they are part of a whole that we must address collectively and in a way that is inclusive and representative of diversity, in order to achieve purposeful equality.

AB: The ethical issues concerning AI are infinite. Machine learning is present in many areas of everyday life: when we search online, take a photo with our mobiles, let autocomplete finish our sentences in the emails we send, and so on. Many creative practices tied to AI try to unearth the root of these ethical issues, such as visual information databases, neural network training methods, or the production systems that underpin devices such as smart speakers.