Mindful Machines

How to understand the nature of artistic creation when the author does not belong to the human experience, but rather exists as both creator and tool for the creation of the work of art? Perhaps creation, the making of the work of art, doesn’t ground authorship of the artistic experience, and it’s instead consciousness what endows the creator with that title, just as it does in the case of participation and an observer of a work of art—which is a question brought to the foreground by Harold Cohen’s AARON (1979), an evolving, quasi-autonomous computer program tasked with learning to produce digital art and capable of improving over time.

AARON is a project that Cohen has continued since its initial launch in the 1970s, which started as a simple bundle of code that would output basic drawings and has evolved (via Cohen’s intervention) into an artificially intelligent computer artist (literal) that has increasingly learned to draw by mimicking cognitive processes of humans when it comes to creative endeavors. The digital art works that AARON produces, while flawed a lot of the times (after all, all artists have to fail to learn and accomplish greatness), do reach levels that qualify as truly artistic. Even if AARON isn’t completely autonomous, since Cohen has to mediate any enhancements and “learning” for the computer artist, one cannot help but ponder about the identity of the artist: is it AARON, the artificial mind drawing the pieces, or is it Cohen, the human mind behind the artificial machine?

One can go even further, and in the best of post-structuralist and phenomenological arguments, question if artists and creators of any kind, human included, aren’t but tools, mere machines crafted to produce works of art, which unfold truths that exist beyond their materiality. Don’t artists constantly acknowledge some higher power bigger than themselves, be that the Muses or simple inspiration, as the original source of the work of art? Didn’t Michelangelo claim he merely “released” his David from its prison of marble? Are human artists just mindful machines meant to bring forth works of arts, while audiences are the mindful machines giving art meaning by participating in its appreciation?

Such series of existential questions can also derive from experiencing Simon Penny’s Petit Mal (1989-1995), an autonomous robot that stages performances (so to speak) as close to “purely robotic” as possible when it interacts with humans. Again, Penny programmed the parameters of the behavior of the robot, but it’s the robot the one that performs and brings forth any sort of work of art—who’s the artist and creator of the work of art?

The main concern that these works of art inspire is that regarding the identity and the nature of the artist, whomever that may be. We could consider an approach of Cartesian proportions, thus focusing not on the “body…bounded by a shape…filling up a space” (Descartes, p. 119) but rather on the mind—the ghost precedes the machine. Or in the cases at hand, the artist’s intention becomes the programming that then resides in the machines. The artists, the authors of the works of art, manage to extend their minds into more corporalities—those of their creations by giving them their own “thought processes”, such as AARON’s cognitive knowledge and drawing rules or the autonomy programming of Petit Mal. However, if that’s the fact, that the machines themselves have thinking of their own, then perhaps they aren’t necessarily extensions of their creators anymore. After all, under that same Cartesian tradition, thinking defines the individual and existence, as Descartes elaborated: “But what then am I? A thing that thinks… that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses” (Descartes, p. 20). If AARON understands human cognition, and Petit Mal senses its environment and wills how to move, then we should conclude that it’s more likely that they’re not the works of art themselves anymore, but something beyond.

Yet, there’s the counterargument of consciousness, self, and will that derive from “the identity which we ascribe to the mind of man [and] is only a fictitious one,” (Hume, p. 169). The minds of these machines, creators of art and works of art themselves, are indeed thinking and making decisions according to their assigned mental rules, but there’s no identity or consciousness behind them, for they only exist within that framework only generating or standing as art, not existing past that. They neither have consciousness of a future nor an awareness of the past—they may have teachings, remnants of data from the past, but not a tapestry of memories inspiring them to do art. At best, mindful machines like AARON have an improved mental programming from which to generate their art, but not a source of personal inspiration or an background of life experiences giving AARON ideas to explore through art. They’re merely perfecting their mental programming, be that regarding drawing technique or movement route, instead of seeking to find truth in art or impress their identities in the work. They can remember mistakes, but not remember that they were worse artist before the incremental improvement programmed into them. In other words, they have no memory of themselves, and thus they cannot have consciousness of the meaning of their art. Just as David Hume assessed that “memory does not so much produce as discover personal identity by showing us the relation of cause and effect among our different perceptions” (p. 171), we ought to consider that mindful machines simply constructs a better tool, not an artist, since their memory is a summation of cause and effects, mostly of mistakes and improvements.

Ultimately, the answer to all of those inquiries may be both simple and complex: that the claim to artistic intent belongs to those who are conscious about the significance of the work of art and truth itself.





Descartes, Renee. Meditations of First Philosophy. Oxford. 2000.

Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1989.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York, New York. 1971.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford. 2000.

Shanken, Edward A. Art and Electronic Media. New York, New York. 2009.


Dallast, Texas. March 2016.

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