A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Alexander Peterhänsel about Art and AI

Alexander Peterhaensel Profile PictureInterview with Alexander Peterhänsel, media artist, designer and Professor for Digital Media at the University of Applied Sciences Brandenburg focused on machine intelligence and creativity, design computation, ICT ethics and virtual- and augmented realities.
He has been an artist in residence to the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission and his work is exhibited internationally, amongst others at the European Parliament (2018), BOZAR Brussels (2020), Ars Electronica (2017, 2018), Media Art Biennale Wroclaw (2019), Futurium Berlin (2021), Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival (2018) or the re:publica Berlin (2018).
Alexander is also the founder of the Audiovisual Architectures Lab Berlin and a member of the Research Group for Convergence between Art, Science and Technology at the UNESP, São Paulo.

Do you consider your work to be art or science? If you perceive some of your work as scientific research and some as art research, how much of what you do is science and how much of it is art?

Alexander Peterhänsel: Both. I am a media artist by training, but a professor and researcher by profession. I operate between two worlds and in both worlds at the same time. With science and in my collaborations with scientists, I work on very clear topics and questions, whereas art allows me to expand my horizons and think more speculatively. It is difficult to determine how much of my work is art and how much is science. The two approaches are interwoven. I mix artistic methodologies with scientific methodologies, so what I do is art and science at the same time. Also, I don’t think it is important to separate the two parts. My work usually results in artefacts which are inspired and informed by art and science, and which can range from scientific papers to mixed art forms to purely aesthetic studies.

I find it very important, though, to adhere to sound scientific standards. Meaning I always apply due diligence to understand the scientific basis of my topic and always consult scientists to make sure I really understand it. I also think art and science are very much related, since at their core they are both creative practices per se: they create new perspectives, new knowledge, new understanding.

Should we get excited if a computer that learnt patterns from a training set can generate new artefacts with the same patterns? Or should we aspire to have a computer make its own patterns?

Alexander Peterhänsel: There is no reason to get overly excited currently. I think it is important to deconstruct the current hype around AI, or so-called artificial intelligence. First of all, I prefer to use the term ‘machine intelligence’ (MI) because it clarifies that there is a distinction between the concept of human intelligence and the so-called intelligence attributed to machines. What is currently labelled as machine intelligence is in fact advanced pattern recognition. It is for sure amazing to see how machines are able to surpass certain human cognitive abilities, but this has nothing to do with our holistic concept of human intelligence, which involves understanding and making sense of a situation versus merely recognising certain patterns. The development of an understanding of our reality is a creative process in and of itself: we have to create a relationship with our surroundings and situate ourselves in the universe. We will be right to get excited (and probably start worrying) once machines are capable of emulating human intellect as a whole. But for now, this is nothing but science fiction.

Throughout history, works of art have shared similarities tied to the time and place in which they were crafted. Ornaments, materials, musical instruments and pigments were shared across entire continents. In various ways, our culture is the product of what was passed on to us by others who modified it a bit and added something new – a sort of mash-up. AI art basically goes through this human filter: humans are responsible for developing the networks, the algorithms and the machine learning. When will AI art be able to stand on its own, without the human element?

Alexander Peterhänsel: There is a clear distinction between mindlessly mashing up styles or patterns and consciously deciding to combine influences into something new; the former is a description of what so-called ‘AI-generated art’ is, and the latter is a description of the human creative process. The possibility of machines developing anything remotely similar to human creativity is science fiction; it will not happen before the advent of so-called artificial general intelligence (AGI). AGI, sometimes also referred to as ‘strong AI’, describes the hypothetical ability of a machine to understand or learn any intellectual task a human being would be capable of.

I personally don’t expect AGI to become possible in the foreseeable future. Our current computational paradigms don’t allow for the simulation or virtualisation of reality in the resolution that is needed to sufficiently describe the complexity of our universe. Without going too deep into this matter, I will just say that it is an issue of an insufficient sampling rate in computational logic modelling.

Do you consider AI artists to be real artists? When would you start considering AI artists to be real artists – when humans relinquish their control over algorithms and machine-learning processes?

Alexander Peterhänsel: First, we need to define what an ‘AI artist’ is. I assume you are referring to a machine-intelligence-driven algorithm or machine that produces/generates pieces of art without being fed data or input and without being controlled by humans. If that is the case, then the short answer is no!

Machines are currently not capable of replicating the human creative process: this is the main misunderstanding here. AI is based on a computational model. It is a virtualisation of reality. It is sandboxed. Therefore, the fidelity (i.e. the resolution) of the computational model and its logic are limited to the resolution of the calculation space. The level of complexity is already compressed and not up to par with reality, or in other words, with the physis of our universe. Subsequently, the outputs generated in a limited logical space can never reach the resolution of the complexity of reality. They are low-resolution models. Therefore, it is impossible for a limited computational model to surpass its limitations and create something of a higher fidelity than its inherent complex space. It is a bit like asking when we will be able to live in architectural models instead of real buildings.

Do you feel that AI artists are merely copy painters that mimic techniques and methods of artistic expression in a pre-determined artistic medium?

Alexander Peterhänsel: Not exactly. It is possible to create new aesthetic expressions, which can only be achieved by deploying machine-learning (ML) algorithms, but it takes humans to create something truly unique with them.

ML art combines patterns that are derived from human cultural output. Incidentally, the cultural heritage of humans is fed into the algorithms by humans doing tedious and often under- or un-paid labour. There is nothing genuinely creative about the outputs of ML art algorithms. They merely present us with reconfigured micro bits of pre-existing outputs of human creativity.

Per the logic of ML, ML algorithms are not creating anything of artistic value, because they lack an understanding of reality and what it is they are generating.

When do you think art institutions will accept and validate AI artists?

Alexander Peterhänsel: This is already happening, even though AI artists don’t really exist. Art institutions and the art market are currently analysing pieces of art created by humans using ML algorithms. The art market does this mostly out of uninformed curiosity, not fully understanding the ground-laying paradigms that led to the generation of these artistic pieces.

Do AI and virtual or augmented reality have the power to alter the structures of the contemporary art world?

Alexander Peterhänsel: ML and virtualisation for sure have the power to alter the structures of almost every aspect of our lives – and they are indeed doing so already. So yes.

Art and science have always been connected – this became clear during the Renaissance, with the advent of mathematics and geometry, the scientific development of pigments and the use of perspective and proportions in painting. Then in the 19th century, painting changed forever with the invention of photography. To what extent do you think technology influences art?

Alexander Peterhänsel: This is a very good question, which I certainly cannot fully answer here. I would argue that they influence one another in a kind of feedback loop. New technology is invented with the same sort of curiosity with which new art is created. Artists are inspired to try out new technologies and expand their aesthetic vocabulary. Artists and designers also imagine what the future could be like, which in turn inspires scientists to research certain questions.

As you said, they have always been connected. In fact, I would argue that they are very closely related. Artists and scientist are true creators in the sense that they genuinely create new interpretations, ideas and new knowledge – new ways of seeing and understanding the world.

How will science influence art in the age of the internet and VR, and in what fields predominantly?

Alexander Peterhänsel: I would argue that we are living in times in which they are going to be more and more interconnected and will influence one another more than ever before.

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