I heard about a cool website that can identify the species of bird from a photo. It’s an impressive feat of computer vision research, but it’s not an entirely automated process.

Once users have taken a photo, they draw a box around the bird, click its bill, eye and tail and tell [the website] where and when the photo was taken.

This idea of automating tasks just enough to augment human capabilities has been on my mind since I met Joe Carrafa, the Engineering Manager of Applied Research at Warby Parker. A lot of applied research in our field is interested in AI/machine learning and automation.

We discussed the fascinating idea of semi-autonomous programs. Like almost artificial intelligence. A little bit of human input and the computer fills in the rest. There are some things that humans are really good at but are intractable for computers. Humans can fill in the gap in the computers’ capabilities, and then computers can automate the parts that are difficult for humans.

A lot has already been said on the topic of automation, like this awesome video, but I want to talk about automation from an artistic perspective.

Researchers have built algorithms that transform photos into Van Gogh paintings. Google has created an AI that composes music. There are open source projects that generate Monet paintings from MS-Paint. How cool is that!

People worry about what you could call an “art of the gaps.” This is the scenario where human creativity is relegated to the shrinking gaps between what hasn’t yet been automated by technology.

I share this worry, I think most technologists should, but like most technologists I can’t help but be excited, too. Because new technology doesn’t just automate things; new technology creates new ways to be creative. Let me explain.

Take photography for example. Right now, photography is one of the most widely practiced forms of art in history because of the ubiquity of camera phones. Some are concerned that the ease of taking pictures has come at the cost of creative freedom. They’re right, image processing algorithms have replaced darkrooms and have removed a lot of creative control from photography.

But it’s not all bad! Photography has exploded as an art form. And there are now new types of photography, too. We now have Instagram stars and artists parodying Instagram stars and cool discussions about “what is art?” and all kinds of new stuff!

I think it’s awesome that smartphones helped to proliferate photography as a casual form of art. I still enjoy a darkroom, but there are clear benefits to what smartphones have done for photography. It’s not just that photography is easier, it’s different now.

Automation is going to keep supplementing human activity, including forms of labour and forms of art. In art’s case, I think the benefits far, far outweigh the costs.

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