Augmented Art: Creating new work inspired by Gaudí

Using machine language to create a sculpture alive with data

Not too long ago, IBM Watson served as the inspirational muse for Grammy-nominated producer Alex Da Kid to help him write the hit song, “Not Easy.” Watson’s machine-learning power has been used in high-profile creative initiatives for fashion, music, and film. But what if you could “teach” Watson to think and create like a great artist?

To test this theory, IBM Watson has been taught how to think like the famous Catalan modernist artist, Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí’s work was influenced by his passions in life: architecture, nature, and religion. His work is part of the creative landscape of his home city of Barcelona.

During the Mobile World Congress conference this week in Barcelona, a team of designers from New York agency SOFTLab will create a sculpture “informed” by Watson. To do this, Watson was fed thousands of images, literary works, articles, and even music influencing Gaudí and Barcelona. Through machine learning, Watson was able to become a Gaudí expert that would inspire the design process.

According to Michael Szivos, founder of SOFTlab, they wanted to push the envelope to what’s possible. “We knew Mobile World Congress 2017 would be in Barcelona, which inspired us to do something we’d never seen done before — work with Watson through the inspiration of legendary Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí to create a sculpture alive with data, a sculpture that thinks.”

Gaudí had clear and distinct themes, such as waves and arches inspired by natural forms. Watson was able to see themes that weren’t as obvious, such as tiles with wrought iron, shapes like beehives, and shells and use of light to enhance his architecture. This inspired the the luminous color patterns, hanging chains and funnels of the design.

To bring this piece to life and make it a true thinking sculpture, Watson is analyzing real-time social data during Mobile World Congress. Using Watson’s Tone Analyzer to extract sentiment from tweets, the sculpture can move in real-time by shifting in height across three distinct sections in response to social chatter on artificial intelligence, trending topics and the collective buzz of the show.

The philosophy used to create this living sculpture is similar to Watson’s other creative endeavors, such as the musical collaboration with Alex Da Kid.

“The idea, without wanting to sound too dramatic, is that if you can distill some of the essences of the original artist’s work then you can give that to Watson, and it can go out and find it in other places — other images and pieces of information — and bring it back to the artists, who can use what it finds as an inspiration or a starting point,” said Jonas Nwuke, IBM Watson manager.

Though Watson still needs human help to put together a physical sculpture, Watson does fill the role of augmenting rather than replacing human creativity.

“It’s about this distillation of the relationship between people and machines — and what we are trying to communicate is this idea that — we don’t believe we’re marching towards a world where the machine is making decisions and providing directions — it’s just providing a little boost, in this case, a bit of inspiration that may or may not have come about naturally,” Nwuke told Forbes.

The Forbes article goes on to suggest that human art is shaped and informed by human life and experience, making Gaudí a perfect choice for this project. Gaudí was inspired by nature and the world around him, he believed that “man does not create… he discovers.” Machine learning is about augmenting human thought (and creativity), and discovery certainly plays an important part in those processes.

It also suggests the possibility that if Watson can create new artwork inspired by Gaudí, then how else can Watson be an artists muse? Create a new Shakespeare informed sonnet? Or perhaps a new painting inspired by Di Vinci?

“One thing I will say,” Nwuke stated “Is that the technology that these guys (SOFTpath) had access to is technology that anybody with the ability to hit the web can access. The things that this technology can do — and I am saying this with a straight face — are only bounded by the imagination of the person using it. We’re hoping that as Watson has inspired these architects, others will be inspired by this work, and will take it further to see what they can do.”