Computers can replicate art, but can they be artists?

The animation industry, and indeed artists in general, have relied on computers for years as a tool to draw, colour and create great art.

But Disney Research went a step further than that recently when scientists created a computer programme which analyses and copies the illustrations of specific artists to create similar drawings.

Seven illustrators were asked to draw quick sketches based on portrait photographs, each generating about 8,000 pen strokes.

The programme gathered this data, as well as individual stylistic differences, such as how far apart the eyes were in each sketch.

The computer then used that information to create sketches of the same photographs as the computer believed each artist would have drawn them.

It’s a fascinating development, and raises the possibility that computers could one day replicate an artist’s style so well as to create new drawings in their name – could we even see new illustrations by old Walt himself grace the (digital) page?

That’s certainly the aim. Scientists hope to develop the technique to create cartoons in specific animators’ styles. But is it art, or just imitation? The same could be asked of the supremely gifted painters who make their money creating fake Van Goghs or Monets.

Dr Nick Lambert, lecturer in digital art at the University of London and chair of the Computer Arts Society, told the BBC it is a question of whether machines can learn and evolve from their sketches, just as a real artist learns and develops from drawing to drawing.

In other words, can they one day think for themselves? And that’s just about the oldest question in the computer handbook.

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