Enter the maze

Aaron and the art of art

a paint palette next to a keyboard

Aaron is a successful American painter. Aaron’s delicate and colourful compositions on canvas sell well in the American art market, and have been exhibited worldwide, in London's Tate Modern gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for example. Oh and by the way, Aaron is a robot!

Yes, Aaron is a robot, controlled by artificial intelligence, and part of a lifelong experiment undertaken by Professor Harold Cohen to create a creative machine. Aaron never paints the same picture twice; it doesn’t simply recall pictures from some big database. Instead Aaron has been programmed to work autonomously. That is, once it starts there is no further human intervention, Aaron just draws and paints following the rules for art that it has been taught.

Perfecting the art of painting

Aaron’s computer program has grown and developed over the years, and like other famous painters, has passed though a number of artistic periods. Back in the early 1970s all Aaron could do was draw simple shapes, albeit shapes that looked hand drawn – not the sorts of precise geometric shapes that normal computer graphics produce. No, Aaron was going to be a creative artist. In the late 1970s Aaron learned something about artistic perspective, namely that objects in the foreground are larger than objects in a picture’s background. In the late 80s Aaron could start to draw human figures, knowing how the various shapes of the human body were joined together, and then learning how to change these shapes as a body moved in three dimensions. Now Aaron knows how to add colour to its drawings, to get those clever compositions of shades just spot on and to produce bold, unique pictures, painted with brush on canvas by its robotic arm.

It’s what you know that counts

When creating a new painting Aaron draws on two types of knowledge. First Aaron knows about things in the real world: the shapes that make up the human body, or a simple tree. This so called declarative (declared) knowledge is encoded in rules in Aaron’s programming. It’s a little like human memory: you know something about how the different shapes in the world work. This information is stored somewhere in your brain. The second type of knowledge Aaron uses is called procedural knowledge. Procedural knowledge allows you to move (process) from a start to an end through a chain of connected steps. Aaron, for example, knows how to proceed through painting areas of a scene to get the colour balance correct and in particular, getting the tone or brightness of the colour right. That is often more artistically important than the actual colours themselves. Inside Aaron’s computer program these two types of knowledge, declarative and procedural, are continuously interacting with each other in complex ways. Perhaps this blending of the two types of knowledge is the root of artistic creativity?

Creating Creativity

Though a successful artist, and capable of producing pleasing and creative pictures, Aaron’s computer program still has many limitations. Though the pictures look impressive, that’s not enough. To really understand creativity we need to examine the process by which they have been made. We have an ‘artist’ that we can take to pieces and examine in detail. Studying what Aaron can do, given we know exactly what’s been programmed into it, allows us to start to examine human creativity. What about it is different from the way humans paint, for example? What would we need to add to Aaron to make its process of painting more similar to human creativity?

Not quite human

Unlike a human artist Aaron cannot go back and correct what it does. Studies of great artist’s paintings often show that under the top layer of paint there are many other parts of the picture that have been painted out, or initial sketches that have been redrawn as the artist progresses through the work, perfecting it as they go. Aaron always starts in the foreground of the picture and moves toward painting the background later, whereas human artists can chop and change which part of a picture to work on to get it just right. Perhaps in the future with Harold Cohen’s help Aaron will develop new human-like painting skills and produce even better paintings. Until then the art world will need to content itself with Aaron’s early period work.