An AI "Painting" Is About To Be Sold For The First Time

Edmond de Belamy. Obvious Art

Last year, a study overseen by management consultancy firm McKinsey revealed that as many as 800 million jobs could be taken by robots by 2030. Our mechanical peers are already outpacing us in certain areas, particularly anything that involves repetition and precision. But there must be some things we humans are better at – like art, for instance. Right?

This October, auctioneers at Christie's will be selling a portrait of Edmond De Belamy, a sturdy-looking man from the 18th century pictured from the waist up. He is dressed in a black coat with a white collar and wears a slightly gormless expression. 

To be honest with you, it is no Rembrandt. It doesn't even look complete. But there is something particularly special about this piece of art – it was painted by an artificially intelligent machine.

The tell-tale sign that hints the artist is not entirely human is the artist's signature in the bottom right-hand corner, which reads:

Obvious Art

The Portrait of Edmond Belamy is just one of eleven "paintings" that depict a totally fictional family called the Belamys. At the head of the family, there is Baron and Comtesse de Belamy, who appear in white powdered wigs and candyfloss pink garments, and right at the very bottom of the family tree, you have the more somberly dressed Edmond. These will be the first pieces created by AI to be sold at auction – and they’re expected to fetch up to €10,000, which is roughly equivalent to $11,600 or £9,000. 

How much would you pay for "Le Compte de Belamy"? Obvious Art

It is part of a project by a Paris-based collective called Obvious, whose aim is to make people think: "Is an algorithm capable of creativity?"

The paintings were created with a two-part algorithm called Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). First, the Obvious team fed approximately 15,000 portraits, all finished between 1300 CE and 1900 CE, into the algorithm. Next, the first part (the Generator) went about creating its own masterpieces, Edmond De Belamy included. Then, it was the job of the second section of the algorithm (nicknamed “the Discriminator”) to determine whether or not the piece of art was human-made or machine-made.

"The aim is to fool the Discriminator into thinking that the new images are real-life portraits. Then we have a result," Hugo Caselles-Dupré from Obvious told Christie’s.

As you might be able to tell from the above painting, it’s not perfect.

“It is an attribute of the model that there is distortion,” Caselles-Dupré continued. “The Discriminator is looking for the features of the image – a face, shoulders – and for now it is more easily fooled than a human eye.”

All the money raised at Christie's, they say, will go back into the algorithm to improve its artistic prowess. Hopefully, the next round of paintings look a little less alien.

It's not the first time AI has been getting busy in the art room. Last year, an algorithm was programmed to make abstract art – and it did it so well, even the critics were fooled. AI poetry, on the other hand, has some way to go.

"La Comptesse de Belamy" in all her 18th-century finery. Obvious Art
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