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Art Equals Human—Not Anymore

When I was a young lad of 11, I was fascinated with computers, or what little there was of them at the time.

Art Equals Human—Not Anymore

It was about 1966, and I checked out a book from the school library on the short but exciting history of the machines. I pored over every page of it. Of course computers were very cool back then to pre-pubescent boys, and I was no exception.

Half way through the book I ran across what I remember being J.M. Coetzee’s work with programming computers to write poetry. My memory regarding details like this is not reliable, so I don’t really know if it was Coetzee’s work or some other blasphemer who decided to embark on such a sacrilege. It was bound to happen though. Humans have a strange compulsion to try to get animals to do human things, like dogs dancing the Macarena, or elephants painting self portraits…why not try to get a machine to write poetry.

Maybe this experience was the first example of my deep aversion to transhumanism, or its mirror image (getting machines to be more like humans, AI). Of course in 1966 AI was a rather recently devised term, possibly first used in 1956. When I read the computer generated poem, my first reaction was “so what?” My second was, “why?” And my third was indignation. “How can a machine write poetry? Poetry is a human creation.”

Of course I don’t remember the poem itself, but it was something like this:

The dirty rusty wooden dresser drawer.
A couple million people wearing drawers,
Or looking through a lonely oven door,
Flowers covered under marble floors.
And lying sleeping on an open bed.
And I remember having started tripping,
Or any angel hanging overhead,
Without another cup of coffee dripping.
Surrounded by a pretty little sergeant,
Another morning at an early crawl.
And from the other side of my apartment,
An empty room behind the inner wall.
A thousand pictures on the kitchen floor,
Talked about a hundred years or more.

The above poem was not written in the ’60s. I actually have no idea when it was written, I only know a computer wrote it. If it was recent, I see computer poets have not improved much in 50 years.


The poem I read in my 11th year was not discernibly worse than this, nor better of course. I was not impressed. But everyone else was. Why?

I am not particularly impressed with an elephant painting a picture of a tree either. Well, that’s not true, I am impressed an elephant can mimic his trainer with a brush in his trunk, but I am not impressed with the elephant as an artist. Similarly, that 11-year-old boy was not impressed with a computer’s efforts at being a poet.

It is interesting that the energies put into a computer emulating human art are so compelling to most people. Why isn’t it enough that the computer can decipher mathematical formulas at inhuman speeds? What’s the appeal that the computer can also write poetry?—and bad poetry at that. In fact, the poetry is so bad it is laughable. It consists of a string of words that really have no relationship to one another unless the human reading it gives it a relationship and meaning. I guess that says a lot about programmers—nerdy scientist types who couldn’t tell Shakespeare from ENIAC if their pocket protectors depended on it.

Jump 50 or so years later and what do we have. Two major breakthroughs in AI that seemed to have jumped out of the shadows nearly simultaneously this past year—AI Art and something called CHAT GPT. I won’t go into the CHAT GPT weirdness as I don’t have the space. Just check it out and see how it is similar to AI Art.

AI Art has shown up in a variety of ways, all basically computer engines that create graphic art based on certain criteria the user inputs. I just bought a subscription to AISEO Art and tried it out. The criteria I input was “warrior shrew fighting sheep” and this is what I got…

Hmmm. Kind of like the computer poetry, eh? It reminds me of a Star Trek episode of yesteryear where something went whacky with the transporter and some strange conglomeration came through instead of a human body. In this case a mutated sheep—and something else I can’t identify. Well, so much for that. Still, if a human created it, it might be interesting. Otherwise it is just random drek.

I have seen other AI Art that didn’t come out so weirdly, so I do believe it is a viable process in a certain context. And this isn’t really even my point. Not even my point with the poetry. The material quality of the “art” is not the offense. This is:

  1. That people look at art and think the only value in it as art is that it “looks” like something they find appealing or interesting or appalling or whatever.
  2. That people seem to be so mesmerized and anxious to take away anything that is exclusively human, they go through great efforts. It is like they are trying to prove to themselves and everyone else that there is no special thing about being human.

I believe that the only thing really special about being a human is that we have a soul. Actually, all sentient beings have souls (I know some of you will argue with that). Some think everything that is manifest matter has some sort of soul. So maybe this “art” has soul, and maybe the machine that made it has soul. This is sort of the argument of the century (watch the series Westworld for more insight on this concept) and I am not going to attempt to get into it here. Maybe the thing that is special about humans is not that we have a soul, but that we know it, and can ponder on it. Art (including music) is a result of that pondering.

From my perspective, art is not art unless a human creates it. Maybe that is a human-centric idea, but that’s it in my humble opinion. It is what I was cognizant of when I was only 11 years old reading the drek that Coetzee’s computer spit out. It never ceases to amaze me how humans toil to make themselves obsolete. Even as artists.

Anyone familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s book Player Piano? It’s a good one. A novel about the future when machines have basically taken over nearly all human labour. The country is divided into college-educated engineers who run the machines in the factories, and everyone else who is either unemployed or in the army. The whole thing is a mess consisting of a culture with a huge split between the educated elite, and unemployed, former labourers. The city is divided with very little interaction between the two “sides.”

There is of course a kerfuffle, and all the machines are destroyed, indicating victory for the “working class”—the novel ends with the workers wandering about the wreckage, now with nothing to do but rebuild their old world where they had a distinct and meaningful purpose. But rather than start anew they begin to rebuild the machines, re-creating the exact world that oppressed them and caused such despair, anger, and meaninglessness. Gee, how did all of these authors predict the future so accurately (not just Vonnegut, but Orwell, Lewis, Huxley, and many others)?

The Vonnegut piece just illustrates our penchant for replacing ourselves, and then scratching our heads and wondering, once we’ve been replaced, why we are so unhappy living meaningless lives—or no lives at all.

What makes art, music, and literature soulful? Ya got me, but it is. We connect with art on an ineffable level. It touches our heart, as they say. But it does this in a way that we cannot quantify, and we might not even consciously be aware of it. Can AI Art touch our hearts? That is difficult to say. Even if it did, that “touch” is artificial, and ultimately meaningless. Can we fall in love with an AI sex robot? Possibly, or we can feel something we think is love. But again, it is pointless and artificial.

If we are not connecting with another human being, the connection is pointless as it relates to humanity. Humanity dies. Maybe it is replaced with something else, something that can make things, create AI art, build buildings, and sing a synthesized song. But all this for a pointless and meaningless reason. For whatever it is worth, we will then be gone. God will no longer have a creation in His image, and the grand mystery of life will vanish.


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