Hyperintelligence: Art, AI, and the Limits of Cognition

by Jochen Szangolies: On May 11, 1997, chess computer Deep Blue dealt then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov a decisive defeat, marking the first time a computer system was able to defeat the top human chess player in a tournament setting. Shortly afterwards, AI chess superiority firmly established, humanity abandoned the game of chess as having now become pointless. Nowadays, with chess engines on regular home PCs easily outsmarting the best humans to ever play the game, chess has become relegated to a mere historical curiosity and obscure benchmark for computational supremacy over feeble human minds.

Except, of course, that’s not what happened. Human interest in chess has not appreciably waned, despite having had to cede the top spot to silicon-based number-crunchers (and the alleged introduction of novel backdoors to cheating). This echoes a pattern well visible throughout the history of technological development: faster modes of transportation—by car, or even on horseback—have not eliminated human competitive racing; great cranes effortlessly raising tonnes of weight does not keep us from competitively lifting mere hundreds of kilos; the invention of photography has not kept humans from drawing realistic likenesses.

Why, then, worry about AI art? What we value, it seems, is not performance as such, but specifically human performance. We are interested in humans racing or playing each other, even in the face of superior non-human agencies. Should we not expect the same pattern to continue: AI creates art equal to or exceeding that of its human progenitors, to nobody’s great interest?

Perhaps, but the story here is more complicated. First of all, art isn’t generally considered explicitly competitive. While we may identify the ‘best’ artists as those whose works command the greatest value, say, at auction, that’s not why we do it (ostensibly, at least). Chess, on the other hand, is played to win—so while in the past, we could elide the distinction between an abstract concept of ‘mastery’ and the more concrete ‘able to beat other humans’, having it made explicit by the introduction of machines that can take part in mastery, but not in the human game of chess comes at no great cost. With art, this is different, if we don’t want to reduce it to just another way of ranking humans.

Furthermore, the occasional chimp notwithstanding, art may be conceptualized as a quintessentially human endeavor, more so than the act of finding an optimal move among a large, but still finite number of options. Art comes from ‘the soul’, whatever that may mean—so where does the production of art by advanced AI systems leave that notion?

All of this, it seems, are just different proxies to interrogate a deeper question: what is it that we value in art in the first place? And whatever that is, does—or could, conceptually speaking—AI art encompass it?

I won’t pretend, or even really try, to make any headway on these questions in the present essay. Rather, I take them as an opportunity to investigate a comparatively less-trodden sidetrack, namely, the ostensible dichotomy between ‘AI’ and ‘us’. We tend to think of AI as a potentially rival, independent wellspring of intelligence: some intelligent ‘other’, perhaps something akin to an alien species, arisen in potential competition to our way of thinking, feeling, creating art, and threatening its continued existence, either by explicit doomsday-scenarios, via threatening irrelevance, or simply being subsumed.

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