There is a theory in mathematics that an indefinite number of monkeys typing on an indefinite number of typewriters would eventually produce the complete written works of William Shakespeare. Were that the case, however, would we consider their work to be art?

Unlike in the infinite monkey theorem, artificial intelligence (AI) gives machines the ability to produce with intent. These machines are not just hitting random keys, but rather learning from the information they have been fed in order to create a final product. While very few people would consider monkeys with typewriters to be artists, it may be a lot harder to question whether or not AI could earn the title.

While it is no secret that proponents believe AI stands to automate jobs across a variety of sectors, recent creative endeavours have tasked AI with creating music, paintings, and other creative projects.

Already, AI-based projects successfully created paintings, written works, and even music. In 2019, Vulture credited Holly Herndon with releasing the first mainstream album created with AI. The album heavily featured the use of an “inhuman child” named Spawn: a neural network that a series of vocal coaches managed to successfully train.

Elsewhere, a portrait painted by AI sold for a stunning $432,500 USD. In order to train the machine to produce its own painting, it was fed a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th century and the 20th century.

When it comes to written works, we are already seeing the emergence of AI-generated narratives, lyrics, and even articles. In fact, proponents predict that “robot journalism" will take on a significant role in society.

While the technical achievements of these endeavours should not be understated, some question whether AI can ever truly produce “art.” The question, while perhaps more philosophical than practical, could be important in redefining how we perceive the world around us and interpret meaning in the content we consume.

Many point out that art is, by its nature, a reflection of the human condition. Among its other purposes, people use art as a way of communicating messages across a spectrum of media. If we accept that art is an inherent reflection of the joys and tribulations of being human, art produced by AI would be little more than an imitation.

This line of thinking seems to be echoed by philosopher Sean Dorris Kelly. In an essay published by MIT Technology Review, he argued that AI is better understood as a tool for enabling human discovery, not as an “autonomous creative agent.”

“[AI] can create music in the style of Bach, for instance—perhaps even music that some experts think is better than Bach’s own,” he wrote. “But that is only because its music can be judged against a preexisting standard. What a machine cannot do is bring about changes in our standards for judging the quality of music or of understanding what music is or is not.”

If we look to definitions of art, similar patterns of thinking emerge. Renowned author and multi-Nobel Peace Prize nominee Leo Tolstoy's 1897 book “What Is Art?” reflects the sentiment that art is derived from human sincerity. According to Tolstoy:

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one person consciously, by certain external signs, conveys to others feelings he has experienced, and other people are affected by these feelings and live them over in themselves.

It would be an understatement, however, to say that attempts to define art have proved controversial. Philosophers continue to disagree with one another on how art should be conceptualized, with some arguing that art rejects definition altogether. One common theme agreed upon by philosophers is that definitions of art are continually evolving. In 1981, art historian Peter Selz wrote:

If one general statement can be made about the art of our times, it is that one by one the old criteria of what a work of art ought to be have been discarded in favor of a dynamic approach in which everything is possible.

Contemporary singer-songwriter Grimes made headlines in 2019 when she expressed her belief that AI will recognize and produce great art at a higher level than humans in the not-so-distant future.

“I feel like we’re in the end of [human art],” she said. “Once there’s actual AGI [Artificial General Intelligence], it’s going to be so much better at making art than us.”

Whether future-gazing visions of machines producing an onslaught of notable creative works will, or even could, come to fruition remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that attempting to define art is an uphill battle. If we believe that “art” is the title we give to expressions of the human experience that move us, help us to relate, feel joy, or less alone, then the idea that machines could be true artists is farcical. Through this lens, works produced solely by AI are little more than impressive technical mimicry. On the other hand, if we believe that it is the job of art to be constantly challenged and exist without preconceived barriers, the works produced by AI are art in their own right.

Join the conversation on Reddit:

The Definition of Art in a World Where AI Can Create a Masterpiece from r/philosophy