Reading Practice: Artificial artist? Can computers really create works of art?

Ngọc Đỗ Ngọc Đỗ
21.05.2022

The Painting Fool is one of a growing number of computer programs which, so their makers claim, possess creative talents. Classical music by an artificial composer has had audiences enraptured, and even tricked them into believing a human was behind the score. Artworks painted by a robot have sold for thousands of dollars and been hung in prestigious galleries. And software has been built which creates are that could not have been imagined by the programmer. 

Human beings are the only species to perform sophisticated creative acts regularly. If we can break this process down into computer code, where does that leave human creativity? ‘This is a question at the very core of humanity,’ says Geraint Wiggins, a computational creativity researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London. ‘It scares a lot of people. They are worried that it is taking something special away from what it means to be human.’

To some extent, we are all familiar with computerised art. The question is: where does the work of the artist stop and the creativity of the computer begin? Consider one of the oldest machine artists, Aaron, a robot that has had paintings exhibited in London’s Tate Modern and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Aaron can pick up a paintbrush and paint on canvas on its own. Impressive perhaps, but it is still little more than a tool to realise the programmer’s own creative ideas.

Simon Colton, the designer of the Painting Fool, is keen to make sure his creation doesn’t attract the same criticism. Unlike earlier ‘artists’ such as Aaron, the Painting Fool only needs minimal direction and can come up with its own concepts by going online for material. The software runs its own web searches and trawls through social media sites. It is now beginning to display a kind of imagination too, creating pictures from scratch. One of its original works is a series of fuzzy landscapes, depicting trees and sky. While some might say they have a mechanical look, Colton argues that such reactions arise from people’s double standards towards software-produced and human-produced art. After all, he says, consider that the Painting Fool painted the landscapes without referring to a photo. ‘If a child painted a new scene from its head, you’d say it has a certain level of imagination,’ he points out. ‘The same should be true of a machine.’ Software bugs can also lead to unexpected results. Some of the Painting Fool’s paintings of a chair came out in black and white, thanks to a technical glitch. This gives the work an eerie, ghostlike quality. Human artists like the renowned Ellsworth Kelly are lauded for limiting their colour palette – so why should computers be any different?

Researchers like Colton don’t believe it is right to measure machine creativity directly to that of humans who ‘have had millennia to develop our skills’. Others, though, are fascinated by the prospect that a computer might create something as original and subtle as our best artists. So far, only one has come close. Composer David Cope invented a program called Experiments in Musical Intelligence, or EMI. Not only did EMI create compositions in Cope’s style, but also that of the most revered classical composers, including Bach, Chopin and Mozart. Audiences were moved to tears, and EMI even fooled classical music experts into thinking they were hearing genuine Bach. Not everyone was impressed however. Some, such as Wiggins, have blasted Cope’s work as pseudoscience, and condemned him for his deliberately vague explanation of how the software worked. Meanwhile, Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University said EMI created replicas which still rely completely on the original artist’s creative impulses. When audiences found out the truth they were often outraged with Cope, and one music lover even tried to punch him. Amid such controversy, Cope destroyed EMI’s vital databases.

But why did so many people love the music, yet recoil when the discovered how it was composed? A study by computer scientist David Moffat of Glasgow Caledonian University provides a clue. He asked both expert musicians and non-experts to assess six compositions. The participants weren’t told beforehand whether the tunes were composed by humans or computers, but were asked to guess, and then rate how much they liked each one. People who thought the composer was a computer tended to dislike the piece more than those who believed it was human. This was true even among the experts, who might have been expected to be more objective in their analyses.

Where does this prejudice come from? Paul Bloom of Yale University has a suggestion: he reckons part of the pleasure we get from art stems from the creative process behind the work. This can give it an ‘irresistible essence’, says Bloom. Meanwhile, experiments by Justin Kruger of New York University have shown that people’s enjoyment of an artwork increases if they think more time and effort was needed to create it. Similarly, Colton thinks that when people experience art, they wonder what the artist might have been thinking or what the artist is trying to tell them. It seems obvious, therefore, that with computers producing art, this speculation is cut short – there’s nothing to explore. But as technology becomes increasingly complex, finding those greater depths in computer art could become possible. This is precisely why Colton asks the Painting Fool to tap into online social networks for its inspiration: hopefully this way it will choose themes that will already be meaningful to us.

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Questions 27-31

Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.

Write the correct letter in boxes 27-31 on your answer sheet.

27   What is the writer suggesting about computer-produced works in the first paragraph?

A   People’s acceptance of them can vary considerably.

B   A great deal of progress has already been attained in this field.

C   They have had more success in some artistic genres than in others.

D   the advances are not as significant as the public believes them to be.

28   According to Geraint Wiggins, why are many people worried by computer art?

A   It is aesthetically inferior to human art.

B   It may ultimately supersede human art.

C   It undermines a fundamental human quality.

D   It will lead to a deterioration in human ability.

29   What is a key difference between Aaron and the Painting Fool?

A   its programmer’s background

B   public response to its work

C   the source of its subject matter

D   the technical standard of its output

30   What point does Simon Colton make in the fourth paragraph?

A   Software-produced art is often dismissed as childish and simplistic.

B   The same concepts of creativity should not be applied to all forms of art.

C   It is unreasonable to expect a machine to be as imaginative as a human being.

D   People tend to judge computer art and human art according to different criteria.

31   The writer refers to the paintings of a chair as an example of computer art which

A   achieves a particularly striking effect.

B   exhibits a certain level of genuine artistic skill.

C   closely resembles that of a well-known artist.

D   highlights the technical limitations of the software.

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Questions 32-37

Complete each sentence with the correct ending, A-G below.

Write the correct letter, A-G, in boxes 32-37 on your answer sheet.

32   Simon Colton says it is important to consider the long-term view then

33   David Cope’s EMI software surprised people by

34   Geraint Wiggins criticized Cope for not

35   Douglas Hofstadter claimed that EMI was

36   Audiences who had listened to EMI’s music became angry after

37   The participants in David Moffat’s study had to assess music without

List of Ideas

A     generating work that was virtually indistinguishable from that of humans.

B knowing whether it was the work of humans or software.

C producing work entirely dependent on the imagination of its creator.

D comparing the artistic achievements of humans and computers.

E revealing the technical details of his program.

F persuading the public to appreciate computer art.

G    discovering that it was the product of a computer program

Questions 38-40

Do the following statements agree with the claims of the writer in Reading Passage 3?

In boxes 38-40 on your answer sheet, write

YES              if the statement agrees with the claims of the writer

NO               if the statement contradicts the claims of the writer

NOT GIVEN    if it is impossible to say what the writer thinks about this

38   Moffat’s research may help explain people’s reactions to EMI.

39   The non-experts in Moffat’s study all responded in a predictable way.

40   Justin Kruger’s findings cast doubt on Paul Bloom’s theory about people’s prejudice towards computer art.

Answers: 

27. B (Đoạn 1, “The Painting Fool is one of a growing number of computer programs which, so their makers claim, possess creative talents” → số lượng tăng lên, tạo ra nhiều tài năng → tiến bộ trong lĩnh vực nghệ thuật nhân tạo) 

28. C (Đoạn 2, “It scares a lot of people. They are worried that it is taking something special away from what it means to be human.” → các tác phẩm nghệ thuật nhân tạo sẽ khiến con người mất đi khả năng của mình.) 

29. C (Đoạn 4, “ only needs minimal direction and can come up with its own concepts by going online for material. … It is now beginning to display a kind of imagination too, creating pictures from scratch.” → The Painting Fool khác với Aaron ở chủ thể) 

30. D (Đoạn 4, “Colton argues that such reactions arise from people’s double standards towards software-produced and human-produced art.” → Con người thường đánh giá tác phẩm của người và của máy móc dựa trên những tiêu chí khác nhau.) 

31. A (Đoạn 4, “Some of the Painting Fool’s paintings of a chair came out in black and white, thanks to a technical glitch. This gives the work an eerie, ghostlike quality.” → Có được một hiệu ứng đặc biệt.) 

32. D (Đoạn 5, “Researchers like Colton don’t believe it is right to measure machine creativity directly to that of humans who ‘have had millennia to develop our skills’.” → So sánh những thành tựu về nghệ thuật của con người và máy móc.)

33. A (Đoạn 5, “ Audiences were moved to tears, … and condemned him for his deliberately vague explanation of how the software worked.” → Tạo ra những tác phẩm không thể phân biệt được đâu là người thực hiện và đâu là máy móc tạo ra.)

34. E (Đoạn 5, “ Some, such as Wiggins, have blasted Cope’s work as pseudoscience, and condemned him for his deliberately vague explanation of how the software worked.” → Tiết lộ những chi tiết về chương trình máy tính này.)

35. C (Đoạn 5, “Meanwhile, Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University said EMI created replicas which still rely completely on the original artist’s creative impulses.” → tạo ra tác phẩm hoàn toàn dựa trên sự tưởng tượng của tác giả.)

36. G (Đoạn 5, “When audiences found out the truth they were often outraged with Cope, and one music lover even tried to punch him.” → phát hiện ra tác phẩm là do máy tạo ra) 

37. B (Đoạn 6, “He asked both expert musicians and non-experts to assess six compositions. The participants weren’t told beforehand whether the tunes were composed by humans or computers” → tìm ra tác phẩm là do người hay chương trình máy tính tạo ra.) 

38. YES (Đoạn 6, “ People who thought the composer was a computer tended to dislike the piece more than those who believed it was human. This was true even among the experts → Kết quả của thí nghiệm giúp thấy được phản ứng của con người)

39. NOT GIVEN (Không có thông tin về việc có cách nào phản ứng lại được hay không) 

40. NO (Đoạn cuối cùng, ta thấy giả thuyết của 2 người này không gây ra nghi ngờ gì hết mà ngược lại còn bổ trợ lẫn nhau.) 

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