I mentioned the fascinating Science Café talk on Deep Learning. At the very end, there was a thought provoking question raised by an artist in the audience who asked whether such machines could create works of art. The speaker pondered the question and answered that in his opinion, the answer is no. His reasoning was that in a work of art, the artist is trying to convey something based on their life experiences and emotions and a computer, however sophisticated and capable of learning, would not be able to draw upon such resources.
A machine that uses deep learning may be able, using the many art works in its database, to ‘know’ what a painting or sculpture should look like and produce something that is novel but it is not clear what meaning it is tying to convey. As an example, a computer that continually strings letters together randomly may, purely by accident, create the play Hamlet or what seems like an original play or novel. Would that be literature?
But while it is true that an artist is usually trying to convey some meaning through their work, there is also the view that once it leaves the artist’s hands, the person viewing the work creates their own meaning and that this meaning is on a par with the meaning that the artist was trying to convey and not subordinate to it. But this presupposes that the creator of the work had some meaning in mind, even if we are not told what it is.
Can the meaning of a work of art ever be completely disconnected from the intent of artist? It may well be that as a result of having a vast database of paintings of a particular genre that are labeled as such, say impressionism, one can give a computer the simple command to “produce an impressionistic painting” without any instructions as to meaning and it would produce an original one. But would we try to impute any meaning to it, if we knew that it had been generated by some algorithm that had large elements of randomness in the process?
Or suppose one encountered on a nature hike a piece of rock that had a beautiful smooth shape. If one thought that it had been molded by the elements, then it is unlikely that one would try to impute meaning to it but would just marvel at what nature can accidentally produce. But suppose someone later told you that the piece of rock had been carved by Henry Moore and placed there. Would that suddenly give the piece meaning that it previously lacked? In other words, if you are given what looks like a novel, play, painting or sculpture and did not know how it was created, would it matter if it were done by a human or a machine?
I definitely don’t have an answer to this question and suspect that no answer will satisfy everyone. But the advent of Deep Learning is undoubtedly going to raise many questions such as these.