The 2030 Ceramic Book Prize Goes to HAL

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Last year, I was presented the Ceramic Book Prize by Mr. Franz Nicolay.  The citation says, “Shaun Kwan demonstrated his dedication to each creative idea and followed through on them with research, determination, and an emerging skill set ready to take on any conceptual challenge. Shaun also persevered through technical challenges, while pursuing these complex forms and decoration. He showed the spirit of creative risk-taking, reflective thinking, and direct action. And with the material of clay itself, Shaun was undeterred in searching its many layers of personality and expression.”  There is the human spirit in art.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines art as the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.  It may be decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter.  The staff of the National Endowment for the Arts argued arts matter because it illustrates human experience, gives us space and expresses emotions, intellect, energy, empathy, and even grief and love.


Stanford Summer Art Institute pointed out the positive effects of engagement with the arts – academic achievement, creativity and innovation, participation and involvement, making the difference


In all of this, be it expressionist, impressionist or abstractionist; poetry, dance, photography, sculpture or performing; fine art, art nouveau, or pop art; 2D or 3D; the giver and the beneficiary – “Us” – is a human being.


On 19th October 2018, Christie’s, the world-renowned auction house, sold the artificial intelligence (AI)-generated piece “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy” for $ 432,500. The French art collective that produced it sought to move AI-art from the fringe into the mainstream. The motive behind its three 25-year-old founders is to “explain and democratize” art. According to McKinsey Analytics, AI is the “ability of a machine to perform cognitive functions akin to perceiving, reasoning, learning, interacting with the environment and problem-solving.”


Obvious, a collective of artists and AI researches, playfully says,

“Computers are useless. They can only give answers.”

Well Picasso (1881 – 1973), it’s a disagreement.


The algorithm that signs off the challenge laughs at Picasso who is long dead, with sarcasm that portends AI and machine learning have outlived him.  A new form of art – GANism  -produced by Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) machine learning algorithms that generate images, is now on the streets.


AI-enabled activities and outputs have exploded recently because of a convergence of algorithmic advances, the proliferation of large data sets, and exponential increases in computing power and storage.


For now, GANism seems to be a supervised learning-type of machine learning, where the algorithm utilizes a huge amount of input data (patterns and shapes) to generate a new output data (forms and shapes) based on specifications that the human recognizes and are familiar with.  The algorithm adapts in response to new data sets without explicit programming instruction.  At this juncture, human intervention is still required; thus Obvious’ team comprises artists and AI engineers.  AI is mostly augmenting human creativity.


However, as AI chip sets and storage blossoms, the unsupervised learning-type machine learning can infer a structure from multiple sets of art data (impressionist, photography, sculpture, etc) to generate popular art and marginalizes those that are not.  And when it gets to reinforcement learning-type machine learning, the algorithm may produce art, for example, that has the highest returns on investment or improve a poor piece to a better yield.  Do not be surprised that you can input a photo of your dog to generate a neo-Van Gough version of a pet painting on canvas, reaping thousands of dollars in return.


Once AI-art moves beyond machine learning to deep learning, neural networks with image, facial, voice and body language recognition capabilities, can self-explore data sets, self-learn new art forms, and self-generate new art concepts that removes the making process from humans.     The future art may have aesthetic value radically different from now.  Marcel Duchamp, the pioneer of the Dada movement that championed art in service of the mind rather than “retinal art” will no doubt be pleased with such conceptual art.


At Obvious, the success of Christie’s auction was accorded to “artist” Ian Goodfellow, the creator of GAN algorithm at Google.


In 2030, will :

the potter be an AI-robotic arm?

poetry be recited by an avatar in the cloud?

a play be choreographed by a deep learning program?

photography be a collage of images captured by security cameras anywhere?

a “hybridised” painting gives off fragrance and music?

a wall that features

be classified as art instead of maths?

Will we receive positive benefits from art by AI instead of art by the human spirit?

Will the 2030 Ceramic Book Prize @ Holderness be presented go to HAL, the deep learning AI?

I am still pondering.

Sign off and out.  But I will obviously be back.