Friday, July 06, 2012

AARON is the world’s first cybernetic artist: an artificially intelligent system that composes its own paintings. Incredibly, the system is the work of one man, Harold Cohen, who had no background in computing when he began the effort. 

Cohen was a prominent painter; he represented Great Britain in the Venice Biennale of 1966. After settling in San Diego, he became interested in the exotic new field of computer programming. It was still performed on punch cards, but Cohen began to teach a computer to paint, modeling the decisions made by an experienced artist — as though he were teaching a particularly dense art student. 

“The vast majority of us,” Cohen says, “follow rules that somebody else taught us when we were growing up and going to art school. Nobody really invents art from scratch. … The computer can in principle enact whatever rules you’re capable of enunciating, but enunciating those rules in a computer language is a nontrivial issue.” (That’s British for ‘astonishingly difficult.’)  

Cohen taught AARON to paint black and white abstractions, then added color, then figuration. He taught it that human bodies fall within a spectrum, how certain types of plants grow, and more. Looking at its paintings, it’s hard to believe that the painter ‘felt’ nothing while making them. 

Edward Feigenbaum, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, considers AARON a remarkable example of AI displaying genuine creativity. “What you call a creative act, it’s actually a behavior that you observe,” he says, “It elicits a kind of emotion of, ‘how did he or she or it think of that?’” 

Yet Cohen himself disagrees; he considers AARON — into which he has poured 40 years of his life — not to be creative. “I think creativity has to involve self-modification in the sense that the creative act has to leave the creator with a different world model than it had before,” he argues. AARON is highly intelligent, but “having a brain and having a life are two different things.”

(Originally aired: December 16, 2011)


Quiz credits: Alana Harper, Jenny Lawton, Katie Long, Carolina Miranda, and Elizabeth Zagroba

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Harold Cohen and Edward Feigenbaum


Jessica Benko

Comments [11]

Patrick Rousseau


Sep. 20 2012 07:53 PM
Dacid from Los Angeles

Its the difference it want one defines "Art" in the first place.

Sep. 10 2012 11:47 AM
billhopen from west virginia

Ahhh yes! but show me please a computer that likes art, collects it, and pays for it (not with bit coin, but gold please) THEN you have something t
hat this sculptor will really appreciate!

Sep. 08 2012 07:25 AM
emtee from nyc

The answer every time: Human. The computer is an amazing development in the human toolbox. Quite an fantastic mind-to-hand assistant. Etc... This is a silly debate Hal.

Jul. 17 2012 09:36 AM
David Maas from 86322

I'm no art critic!

Jul. 13 2012 07:31 PM
maureen drdak from Ardmore PA

A bit challenging as most contemporary art today ALREADY attenpts to replicate machine produced imagery, and additionally, classical drawing skills and aesthetics have substantionally atrophied. Hence, the actual "qualitative" and "aesthetic" difference between man and machine would be at present quite arbitrary. And further, what we describe as a creative effort has become so catholic as to "lower the bar" substantially....

Jul. 10 2012 09:38 PM


Jul. 09 2012 02:12 PM

Not so easy to notice the differences...

Jul. 09 2012 10:16 AM
dh sibley from usa

38 yers professor of painting in a leading school

Jul. 08 2012 05:09 PM
Scampbell from Essex, CT


Jul. 07 2012 04:51 PM
Stourley Kracklite from Shanghai

Bob Moses' When Elephants Dream of Music would have been a good choice of music for this story.

Jul. 06 2012 12:07 PM

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