Art and AI
Esko Kilpi

A Cautionary Tale of Artless Artificial Intelligence

An evolution in artificial art that can’t survive outside the lab

Esko Kilpi’s recent article on Art and Artificial Intelligence brings to mind the cautionary tale of The Grid, a startup company that garnered a great deal of attention in late 2014 with the claim that it would, in early 2015, liberate people from the burden of web design by using artificial intelligence to automatically create sites dynamically designed by algorithm, specially suited to the visual and written content people wanted to publish.

Gone would be the need for people to think about design, and gone would be the cookie-cutter templates of Wordpress and Squarespace. AI would triumph, creating beautiful and meaningful web pages automatically. “We’ve spent the last few years building a form of artificial intelligence that functions like your own personal graphic designer, able to think about your brand and present it in the best way possible,” boasted Dan Tocchini, founder of The Grid.

Large numbers of people signed up, ready to take part in the first wave of the revolution of “web sites that design themselves”. They waited eagerly, as winter gave way to spring. They continued waiting, as summer 2015 came along. The developers behind The Grid apologized for the delay, admitting that they really didn’t have the artificial intelligence figured out as much as they thought they did. AI is hard, they told their customers, please wait while we work it out.

Happy holidays, after a year of AI failures.

I’m beta user 19,420, and over a year after I signed up and paid the fee to become a “Founding Member”, I still haven’t been given access to the system. A small number of beta users have been given access, but their efforts have been profoundly disappointing, far from the automatically created beauty that was promised. Even the site created by Tocchini, who knows how to use The Grid better than anyone else, looks clunky and cold.

Coders for The Grid have struggled even to devise algorithms to enable their system to recognize and replicate colors in online images, something that humans can do using standard graphics software in a matter of seconds. Artificial intelligence, it turns out, isn’t nearly as well developed as its proponents claim.

Art That Gets Us Off The Grid

Kilpi notes that artificial intelligence projects often fail because they underestimate the extent of the chaos that can be provoked by even tiny amounts of unpredictability. What AI developers seem not to have grasped is that, in the spheres of experience that matter most to human beings, unpredictability is not a problem. It’s the source of satisfaction and engagement.

While artificial intelligence systems are designed with the goal of eliminating unpredictability, the best art is created as an expression of unpredictability. Good art isn’t precise. It’s passionate, and provocative.

Powerful art isn’t just pretty. It’s transformative.

Creative Commons, by Panavalli, from Thirayattam

The roots of art are even more ancient than humanity. Artistic displays had their origin in the ritual behaviors of our pre-human ancestors, and despite our commercial culture’s pretensions of industrial disenchantment, remain embedded in the ritual context to this day.

Art that matters provokes a transcendent experience, both for the artists who create it and for the audiences who encounter it. It surprises us with its purposefully-designed flamboyance, breaking us apart, even if just for a few moments, from the everyday level of human experience into greater mysteries. Creating uncertainty, ritual displays of art defy systems of mundane thinking, leading us to epiphanies about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Art that is effective has a purpose, though that purpose may not be consciously understood even by the artists who create it. Art is a struggle, both for those who make it and those who receive it. It isn’t supposed to be easy. Art that is important is art that has been earned.

The design of a web page may not be an artistic enterprise on the scale of the Sistine Chapel, but its aesthetic success is defined by the same criteria of human experience. A successful web design suggests a sense of human purpose, an individual identity, and a vision of the world that is worth paying attention to.

These are the very experiences that the creators of The Grid pledged to liberate their users from. Hidden within the pitch of The Grid was the promise of a cheat: Using secret formulas of automated aesthetics, The Grid would create the appearance of artistic effort without requiring any effort.

The effort was bound to fail, because artistic merit isn’t created by formula, and humans have evolved an extraordinary skill, over millions of years of social adaptive pressure, of identifying phony expressions of engagement.

The failure of The Grid offers a cautionary tale about the perils of automation — and not just for artists and designers. Every kind of work has an artistic drive that underlies its systematic efficiency. The push for automation is sapping this drive, and warping the fabric of human relationships in workplaces and homes across our society.

Within appropriate parameters, artificial intelligence can support the artistry in our lives, giving us the ability to focus on the meaning in our work. When automation is placed at the center of human enterprise, however, passion and profit suffer alike.