Edmond Belamy looks like a preacher or a judge that might have come to America on a boat in the 1800s, a portly gentleman in a white collar and black robe standing square shouldered with a sense of self-importance. But the most important thing to know about Edmond Belamy is that he never existed. His portrait was regurgitated by a computer after it was fed 15,000 portraits. Then the art house Christie’s sold Edmond Belamy for $432,500 as the first portrait created by artificial intelligence.
This story triggers my ire for a few reasons. First is the obvious issue of art. If you fed a computer 15,000 Youtube videos you could expect it to render a cat with a potato chip bag on its head stealing Cheerios from a babbling toddler. But would we call that cinema veritè?
Second, whether we accept Edmond Belamy represents something new in art, we must admit he represents something very, very old in human relations: the patriarchy. The computer was fed 15,000 pieces of artwork from an era when European men dominated the globe, and guess what? The first portrait created by artificial intelligence is of an elite white guy.
Third, and scariest. This is what passes for artificial intelligence. A computer sorts through an enormous database, picks out the most common data, assembles it to resemble what has been historically acceptable, and spits out the stereotype. This is how history repeats itself.
How different would Edmond Belamy look if his original data set of 15,000 portraits had included equal numbers of males and females representing all of the world’s cultures?
Computers don’t have values. They only know what we tell them. A computer can’t cook without a recipe because it can’t smell, or taste, or chew, or swallow. It doesn’t get hungry, or eat out at restaurants, or vacation in Italy, or experiment with new ingredients. If all 15,000 recipes in your robot’s database are for ham sandwiches, you’re going to be having a ham sandwich for dinner. And even if it’s the best ham sandwich you ever ate, you aren’t going to say your robot is a very good cook. Your robot is a ham sandwich machine.
Likewise Edmond Belamy was produced from a limited set of predetermined ingredients selected by his programmers, and brought to fame not because of the quality of the work, but because of the price paid for it. It’s as though someone paid $432,500 for a ham sandwich just because it was made by a robot.