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This artist is using AI to paint with his mind

In recent months, the artistic provocateur and technologist Alexander Reben has devoted his time to producing a series of visually arresting paintings.

And yet, the California-based artist and MIT-trained roboticist has yet to pick up a brush or a tube of paint.

His technique relies instead on a new creative tool that artists such as Reben are just beginning to explore: artificial intelligence. With the help of algorithms, Reben is producing images in collaboration with machine intelligence. The images are eventually reproduced physically in a Chinese town that is home to artists who specialize in re-creating works of art on the canvas, completing what Reben refers to as “a robotic loop of art-making.”

“It’s the ultimate artist dream to lie in a hammock and think about art that is then generated for them,” he said, arguing that his latest series of paintings is the first step in that direction. “There may be a time when you could be lying in bed listening to sounds and a computer will decipher which sounds you like the most, allowing you to make your own custom songs based on your brain’s preferences."

"Computers might end bands the same way they might make anyone a painter,” he added.

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Reben may be onto something. In October, a portrait made by algorithm became the first example of machine-created art to be sold at a major auction house, according to Yahoo News. The price for the portrait of Edmond de Belamy: $432,500.

The work was produced by a Paris-based collective that seeks to “democratize art,” Yahoo reported. To create their masterpiece, the group fed a computer program thousands of classic portraits. Instead of a signature, the auction house Christie’s said, the group included a mathematical formula on the bottom right, using Gallic script.

“This portrait, however, is not the product of a human mind,” Christie’s noted. “It was created by an artificial intelligence, an algorithm defined by that algebraic formula with its many parentheses.”

Reben said his technique begins with a computer model that combines words together to generate a single — often unsettling — image. The artificially intelligent program might combine the words “clock” and “jellyfish,” for example, creating a melted visualization that looks like the spawn of a psychedelic art exhibit and a nightmarish dream. The results are paired with other images, creating a “child” image that somehow enhances the visual chaos, according to Reben.

When Reben views those images, he said, AI measures his brain waves and body signals and selects which image he likes best. An image that passed the likability test undergoes several more rounds of AI retouching to enhance resolution. Once completed, the finished images are sent to China, where they are painted by hand.

“It’s going to be their best effort and interpretation of what they see,” Reben said, referring to the painter’s final product. “That whole loop from my brain waves to an anonymous painter is a really interesting chain.”

Reben plans to have AI scan finished paintings to decipher what’s inside them and come up with a title.

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This is not Reben’s first time delving into AI-inspired artwork with a hint of dark humor. Earlier this year, he attempted to train artificial intelligence to create the sort of generic messages that someone might find in fortune cookies. Instead of producing the kind of playful and seemingly vaguely perceptive advice known to bring a smile to people’s faces, Reben’s technology turned dark — and undeniably weird, with the majority of the messages being “very negative,” according to the artist.

Reben said he finds the creative potential of AI — especially when it’s paired with human creativity — “endlessly interesting.”

“The future may not be Terminators, but a lot of human-machine collaboration,” he said.

The artists' latest paintings, six of which are being painted in China, already have a waiting list, he said.