To mark the one-year anniversary sale of the Portrait of Edmond Bellamy, the first AI-generated art piece auctioned at Christie’s in New York for $432,500, I ask myself, can anyone who has some kind of algorithm know-how become the next Andy Warhol? Is art made by machines ‘good art’? Should it even be considered art at all? These questions have been asked around the art and tech circles since last October, when the blurry 19th-century-inspired portrait created entirely by an AI machine was unveiled at the iconic auction house.
What makes AI art groundbreaking is that it uses GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks). This is a machine modelled after the human brain with two approaches to thought and conception: first, it scours images and detects patterns using an algorithm. Then it generates images that align with that algorithm. In a rigid industry ruled by ‘White Cube elitism’, it’s surprising that tech mediums such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and adversarial networks are having a moment in the art world. Although this historic auction signalled the disruption of art by the digital revolution, its controversy has not been ignored.
Some may argue that this could be the end of art as we know it, with artists worrying about machines possibly stealing their jobs and putting them out of work. Others have debated whether machine-made paintings and prints should even be considered art. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz has said “AI artists are striving for their machines to paint like humans do or even better. But why should they?” If artists and scientists are striving to pioneer in this new form of artistry, why not explore other modes of creativity? These are both exciting and scary prospects, but the question people should be asking themselves is why is AI art created only on paintings and prints?
To some, paintings and prints can be considered as an outdated medium, and if AI’s advantage is being more cognitively advanced than humans, why not use it on a more advanced level? One that springs to mind is digital face filters (yes, digital face filters like the ones on Instagram). Hear me out—although their popularity amongst the selfie-obsessed has been pioneering what is digital beauty and disrupting societal beauty standards, they should also be recognised in an art context.
As we are always interacting with flat dimensions, seeing art through a face brings a new perspective to understanding art. Filters such as the ones made by digital artist Johanna Jaskowska, who created the famous Beauty3000, Blast, and Zoufriya, have been transforming faces into otherworldly living artworks. Using AR-made face filters as a medium for AI-generated imagery could catapult the future relationship between art and tech.
Think about it this way—the Mona Lisa is the most photographed art piece in history, yet everyone would kill to have the original sitting in their homes. Who wouldn’t want to buy a face filter if you knew you and only a slim few others would be able to experience it and show it off on your social media platforms? Plus, if AI-made blurry prints can make it into Christie’s, then why can’t face filters? The art world should see beyond the White Cube and realise that art in the digital era shouldn’t just live on canvas anymore.
Why put a wealth of knowledge on an outdated medium? AI art is presenting a new form of creative thinking that is beyond human comprehension, and it’s a disservice to put this contemporary way of thinking into old mediums. Besides, seeing AI used in creation with already overused mediums doesn’t seem that groundbreaking. For being so innovative, using old methods seems counterintuitive.
The reason why some aren’t convinced of the significance of AI art is that it looks like it was badly made, and, more importantly, that a human made it. Shouldn’t we focus on the fact that it was machine-made and conceptualised by a machine? Although seeing face filters on auction at Christie’s or seeing digital artists such as Johanna Jaskowska, Jade Roche, and Mathieu Ernst next to the Old Masters in museums may seem like a stretch for now, who knows where the future of art lies in the techy world. In the words of Andy Warhol himself, “Art is what you can get away with.” We just need to push the boundaries.
In early September, Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, revealed its new priest—a robot named Mindar. Made of aluminium and silicone, Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country where religion is on the decline, this $1 million robot priest is a futuristic attempt at rekindling people’s faith. Is merging AI with religion a good idea? Could it change religion as we know it?
Religion has always been a sensitive topic, while AI has stirred its fair share of controversy recently. Combining the two together by incorporating robotics in religion sounds like an idea with great potential to some, and like a very dangerous game to others. When it was first revealed in Japan, Mindar was compared to Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, people like Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, were positive about it. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.(…) With AI we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism,” declared Goto when Mindar was revealed.
At the moment, Mindar the robot priest is not AI-powered; it simply recites the same sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But its creators revealed that they’re working on giving it machine-learning capabilities that would enable Mindar to give advice to worshippers’ spiritual and ethical problems. As crazy as it sounds, Mindar is not the first example of robots and animated objects getting involved in religion.
Screen Shot spoke to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford, who wrote Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Mayor told us about the many links between religion and robots from ancient Greece to today, and her opinion on robot priests like Mindar. “Religious automatons were intended to evoke awe and display power in antiquity. We should be aware that similar motives could underlie using AI and robots today,” Mayor says.
When talking about the possibility of AI being implemented in religion, Mayor poses the questions that everyone should be asking themselves: “How can one trust that the machine learning and algorithms would always be beneficial to the users and not to the makers and deployers of robot priests? Could AI distinguish between immoral acts and moral values? Could AI discern motives and intentions and recognise sincere remorse, experience empathy, or truly embody the human qualities of mercy and forgiveness?” The doubts and uncertainty that surround this technology explain why people feel uncomfortable about the prospect. Some religions, however, might be better fitted than others, explains Mayor, “To Buddhists it doesn’t matter whether the force turning the wheel has consciousness or not. Religions that value internal reflection, intentional heartfelt prayer, spiritual guidance based on experience and empathy, and ethical decision making in complex social situations don’t seem particularly compatible with robots and AI.”
Another example of robots being used in religion is Sanctified Theomorphic Operator (SanTo), a figurine shaped like a Catholic saint. Created by roboticist Gabriele Trovato, SanTo answers people’s worry with verses from the Bible, specifically providing comfort and assistance to the elderly. This shows that certain positive potential that AI could bring to religion can’t be completely ignored—robots can perform religious rituals when human priests can’t, and hey can reach more worshippers.
The negative ramifications, however, seem to outnumber the positive ones. Are we willing to alter religion, a topic that has created so much chaos, and still does? By giving these robots AI machine-learning abilities, we would give them the power to tell us how to feel, how to ‘repent’, and what to do. The ethical and spiritual responses from those religious robots will need to be carefully crafted for worshippers to finally trust them. Robot priests are happening, but before preaching it, we need to look at how it will be designed, implemented, and received.