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Google's Trippy AI Neural Nets Put On an Art Show

Can a machine outdo Picasso?

Mark Bergen / Re/code

Almost every day, machines outmatch humans on some task. They identify faces and places better than us. They beat us at bedeviling board games.

Can machines outdo Picasso?

Google thinks they should at least have a chance. On Friday night, they did.

San Francisco played host to “DeepDream,” an event that its organizers, members of Google’s research and virtual reality divisions, call the first ever art exhibition produced by neural nets — the in-vogue artificial intelligence tool that roughly mimics the human brain. The artworks were auctioned off to benefit the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts.

Google Research and Gray Area Foundation host “DeepDream”
Google Research and Gray Area Foundation host “DeepDream”

Each work had an artist’s name attached, but the humans disavowed credit.

“It’s just random noise,” explained Mike Tyka, a Google researcher and the show’s most prolific artist. That is, the coder feeds visual data into the neural nets, unable to predict what will emerge.

A collection of Tyka’s noise went for $4,000 in the evening’s auction. GCHQ, a political work from London artist Memo Akten, fetched the most at $8,000. (Not quite Picasso prices.)

Jac de Haan | Google
Jac de Haan | Google

The idea for the exhibition originated this summer, when Google released its “deep dream” photos, the result of algorithms doing advanced reverse image recognition. The trippy photos went viral. By sticking them in a gallery, Google is able to showcase its machine learning prowess while practicing its longtime branding exercise of appearing warm and fuzzy. In this case, taking the weirdest part of Google, robots and their Poindexter creators, and rendering them cool.

 Google Research and Gray Area Foundation host “DeepDream”
Google Research and Gray Area Foundation host “DeepDream”
Mark Bergen / Re/code

Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a Google researcher, gave the evening’s keynote. He downplayed the trippy element in favor of a more highbrow theory on machines and creativity. Historically, artists have always toyed with the latest technology, he said, and the AI works on display were experimenting with form just like Picasso and Georges Braque (the Scottie Pippen of Cubism).

“I used to think that art was some peculiar thing that humans do,” he said. “But now I think when we meet the aliens, they’ll have a similar concept.”

Not exactly soothing words for those concerned about the perils of artificial intelligence. But the audience didn’t seem to mind.

Still, Arcas added a disclaimer: “This idea that technology is this grave ‘Other’ that is ready to spring on us is, I think, profoundly mistaken.”

Jac de Haan | Google
Jac de Haan | Google

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