Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE 102

The artificial artist. (personal computers)(includes related article)
by Gregg Keizer

They write; they paint; they make music. They pretend to be human. But they're not. They're PCs.

And PCs are, with our help, masquerading as novelists, painters, musicians, poets, and sculptors. If they're good, they can fool the best of us. If they're bad, they still get a laugh.

But as their mimicry improves, the lines between what they make and what we create begin to blur. Ethical, legal, and artistic questions dance around like balls in a pinball machine.

They're not doing it by themselves, though. We're still pulling the strings, crafting the programs, and pushing the technology to fire our own creative juices--or to see if we can make these machines jump through the hoops.

But computers of the future may not be willing to play second fiddle.

Synthetic Pothos

Says John Grimes of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, "I don't really think machines can replace what humans intrinsically do. Whatever computers become, we will define ourselves in contradistinction." Yet Grimes has spent years developing CameraWork, which makes images in ways no human could.

A professional photographer, Grimes wanted to experiment with images, try countless variations--many of which he knew would fail--quickly and interactively. CameraWork was the result. By offering 30 fundamental processes and then letting users combine those artistic atoms in any number of ways, CameraWork can add, subtract, and metamorphose images in an almost infinite variety of ways. Painters have used it to transform charcoal drawings into sweeping pastels, and Grimes uses it to produce variations of his photographs.

"What you end up with is something unimaginable," he says. "You create a new image that cannot be anticipated." While these synthetic photographs wouldn't be possible without the computer, Grimes dismisses the idea of computers as creators. "They don't make instant art, nor do they make anyone an instant artist. What the computer provides is a lever for the imagination."

But the definitions blur. Harold Cohen, a Los Angeles-based painter, has spent the last 15 years perfecting a program that paints. Written in LISP, a computer language long associated with artificial intelligence research and development, Arron's works have appeared in several electronic art shows.

AutoDesk's Chaos: The Software, though not styled as an art program certainly produces interesting images. Fire up the program, walk away, and when you come back, you'll find strange clouds, mountains, or abstracts on your monitor. To some, those images are as much art as any Jackson Pollock.

Computerized self-animations--such as the MIT Media Lab's classic Cootie, in which an animated Cootie toy scuttles from place to place by its own set of rules--evoke images of the kind of electronic life software only now filtering down to the home computer. Maxis Software's SimAnt, a simulated ant colony, is a good example. "Who knows if that isn't an art form?" asks John Grimes.

Total Eclipse of Art

Dead women tell tales. So claims Scott French. This Foster City, California freelance writer brought Jacqueline Susann back from the grave. She was the flam-boyant author of such sultry 1960s novels as Valley of the Dolls.

Using a Macintosh llcx and off-the-rack artificial intelligence software, French painstakingly re-created Susann's style, characters, and stories, and then collaborated with the Mac on Just This Once, a steamy pseudo-Susann novel updated for the 1990s.

French picked apart Susann's writing and then, using the Al software, distilled her prose and plot lines into several hundred formulas. These told the computer how to write, shape the plot, and develop characters. After French made some suggestions, the computer gushed out copy that would make the late author proud--or ashamed.

Just This Once is no fiction-by-silicon fiat. "It's really a collaboration," says French. "I like to think we did it together." French estimates that he wrote about 10 to 15 percent, while the computer cranked out anoter 25 percent on its own. The rest was a back-and-forth between authors, much as in any other writing tag team.

How good is Just This Once? How good was Jacqueline Susann?

Susann, in Valley of the Dolls: "She went into the house and grabbed a bottle of Scotch off the bar. Then she went into her bedroom, pulled the blinds to shut out the daylight, shut off her phone and swallowed five red pills. Five red ones hardly did anything now."

Franch/Macintosh in Just This Once: "Lisa picked up the large propane torch and cracked the valve open a hair. The compressed air hissed out like an angry rattlesnake. She snapped the flint wheel on her lighter and the stream of invisible gas flashed into an iridescent blue streak."

French has signed with a New York agent and hopes to see Just This Once in bookstores soon. If so, it will be the world's first fiction written primarily by a computer. But French isn't ready to rest on just one novel--or one writer. "It's possible to take two separate writers, in the same genre perhaps, and combine them to come out with a synergistic product. You're making a third person out of it."

Other artificial writers are less ambitious. Headliner helps write advertising slogans but is more of a brainstorming tool than anything else. Give this PC program a word--say, art-and ask it to pull up some titles, proverbs, and idioms with rhyming words, and you'll end up with something like the headline at the beginning of this section.

Corporate Voice, a souped-up grammar and style checker, tries to mold your text to a standard you set. For companies that want all outgoing material to reflect a single style, Voice can twist words to sound as if they came from Raymond Chandler or Mark Twain.

Strangest of all, a computer went undercover on UseNet, an online network that links corporate, academic, and government research labs, and spewed out bizarre messages. Never challenged, Mark V. Shaney, the computer's nom de plume, sent back nonsensical ditties like "I am afraid of it becoming another island in a nice suit." No one suspected it was software. They thought it was just another electronic nut.


Computers can help artists visualize 3-D works, but they can't put hands to clay to execute the dream. Not yet.

Advances in desktop manufacturing foreshadow a future where artists sit at the screen create a sculpture with something akin to CAD (Computer Aided Design), and then build it on their desktop, all under computer control.

Several competing technologies that range from solidfying liquid plastic with an ultraviolet laser to hardening a powder with a jet of silica, deliver small-sized replicas of computer-generated designs. The computer scans a design in superthin slices and then translates the image into just-as-thin cross sections of the object.

The high cost of such desktop manufacturing machines--they go for up to half a million dollars--means that, for the moment, they'll stay in high-profit manufacturing where they're used to create ceramic molds and heart valve prototypes. But if pricces drop, on-the-edge artists may grab the technology to build works of art at their desks without getting their hands dirty.

It's Pretty, but Is It Art?

"Is it possible for computers to be a great aid in expression?" asks Grimes. "Yes. Is it possible for the computer to be an integral part of that process? Yes. Can computers replace artists? No."

No? Artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, even after years of research. Artists and nonartists will continue refining electronic efforts that ape our ability to express ourselves in words, paint, and music if only to prove that it can be done. "The computer suggested changes that I couldn't see," claims French. "No human could do it; it's simply overwhelming."

If computers can create something pretty, something art, it's our fault. We taught them everything they know.