Kalin Nikolov: Do not be afraid of AI

If it creates a painting which stirs pleasant emotions in me, I would gladly hang up that piece in my living room

Photo: Boyko Kichukov Kalin Nikolov

Creating art, as unique as that process is, has its psychological patterns. There is a certain reflexive element to it whenever a person is creating shapes, be it in painting, writing poems, or imitating nature through some kind of visuals. I think there will come a time when machines will be able to perform these acts just as well as us. And we will be locked forever in the argument whether this is real art or not, artist Kalin Nikolov says in an interview to Europost.

Mr Nikolov, a painting generated by artificial intelligence is set to go up for auction and is expected to fetch up to $10,000. What is your take on that?

Unquestionably, such solutions will be part of the future of arts. Artificial intelligence is deeply ingrained in the philosophy of things. The debate on whether there are mechanisms in nature which are predetermined by the structure of substances goes as far back as the time of Rene Descartes. With it, the nascent natural philosophy opposed mystical theories that there was some form of intelligence in matter. The potential existence of such intelligence, later to be utilised and developed by technologies, started to be discussed as early as then.

Nowadays, this is a reality. Remember the case from a few years ago when a man felt sick while driving. Seconds before he had a heart attack, he managed to push the autopilot button and the car made the decision to drive him not home, as it was originally programmed, but to the hospital instead. This was perceived as a revolutionary intervention of technology in service of humanity.

Is it safe to say that artificial intelligence is capable of showing creativity, in painting for example?

Creating art, as unique as that process is, has its psychological patterns. There is a certain reflexive element to it whenever a person is creating shapes, be it in painting, writing poems, or imitating nature through some kind of visuals. I think there will come a time when machines will be able to perform these acts just as well as us. And we will be locked forever in the argument whether this is real art or not.

Do you think that machines might surpass man as artists?

I do not believe so. But they will certainly be able to paint just as well. We have an example of sorts in that regard. In 2016, using a database of about 400 Rembrandt pieces, a 3D picture was generated by an artificial intelligence “artist” and pronounced as the next Rembrandt. These are the first steps. I cannot predict when, but those algorithms will show some form of creativity eventually. After all, many artists capture nature within the framework of their era. If you visit a museum and look at baroque paintings, you would be hard-pressed to tell which piece was done by which artist because they are of a similar style. So, to some degree, artificial intelligence will develop and improve.

Would you personally be willing to buy a painting generated by artificial intelligence and hang it up in your living room?

Why not? As long as I like it and can afford it. Back in the day, my aesthetics professor Bogomil Raynov used to wonder why tourists take photos of various landmarks. He meant that their photos were not good because the people behind the cameras lacked training as photographers. Would it not be better if they just bought postcards then? He said the same thing about people who bought all sorts of paintings just to satisfy some personal necessity. He thought they would be better off hanging up a reproduction of El Greco or Rembrandt to accompany their lives.

I am not a snob either. I would actually prefer to have a reproduction of some artist I admire. Let the original works stay in museums or private collections. If artificial intelligence creates a painting that stirs pleasant emotions in me, I would gladly hang it up in my living room.

With the advent of new technologies, many of the occupations we know today will disappear. Are artists in danger of losing their place in society too?

No! Similar concerns were raised back in the 19th century by the emergence of photography, but it has not replaced us. Machines will not be able to do so either.

Besides, they cannot sign their own work as artists, can they?

This is a very complicated legal matter at this point. A year or two ago, a monkey took a photo, a selfie if I remember correctly, and a very interesting one at that. Under the US law, however, an artwork cannot be created by nature, an animal, a plant, or a machine. It can only be created by man. In that sense, the picture taken by the monkey cannot be classified as an artwork because the act of creating is not a conscious one, it is not even an intuitive one, as is the case with children. But the product generated by a computer algorithm should be subject to copyright, and I am sure that work is being done to that end.

How legitimate are fears that one day machines will control us instead of the other way round?

We cannot dismiss the notion that in the future a much more advanced artificial intelligence will be able to make its own decisions. Famous British mathematician, cryptanalyst, computer scientist and philosopher Alan Turing gave his definition of artificial intelligence. While working on deciphering how the Enigma codes used by Germany in WWII worked, he felt as if he was dealing with a human - the level of communication between him and the electro-mechanic device used to crack the codes was that high. Keep in mind that things are evolving, at an incredible rate too. There is nothing terrifying about the idea that one day machines will have their own mind. The question is whether we will be able to influence such type of intelligence and direct it in helping man, serving humanity, instead of it being used against certain individuals or particular trends.

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Kalin Nikolov was born on 24 June 1956 in Sofia. He is an alumnus of the National School of Fine Arts and has a degree in Printing and Printing Technologies from the National Academy of Art, earned under the tutelage of Prof. Evtim Tomov. He has worked in the fields of painting, illustration, caricature, book design, comics, printing and posters. He studied under and worked with the great Bulgarian print master and cartoonist Boris Dimovski (1925-2007) for more than 30 years. He worked as an artist for the newspapers Antennae, Evening News, and others. Nikolov has also taught Art History in a Sofia high school. He has authored numerous articles as an art critic and historian. At present, he heads the Printing Department of the National Art Gallery in Sofia.

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