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Surreal portrait painted by AI sells for more than $400,000. How was it made?

A portrait of the fictional Edmond Belamy sold for $432,000, many times higher than its highest expected bidding price. The portrait was created by an artificial intelligence from the French art collective Obvious.
A portrait of the fictional Edmond Belamy sold for $432,000, many times higher than its highest expected bidding price. The portrait was created by an artificial intelligence from the French art collective Obvious. BBC Video/Screenshot

A surreal, blurry painting, titled Portrait of Edmond Belamy, sold for $432,000 at an auction at Christie’s in New York City Thursday, the BBC reported.

That’s a lot of money, but it’s not the most interesting part of the story. The real story is that the portrait wasn’t painted by a human. Or an animal, for that matter.

Instead, it sprung from the “mind” of an artificial intelligence called the GAN, or the “generative adversarial network,” according to the auction house. The painting was only expected to sell for $7,000 and $10,000, The Verge reported. But bidding skyrocketed during the sale, pushing the final price to more 40 times higher than its highest estimate.

“AI is just one of several technologies that will have an impact on the art market of the future — although it is far too early to predict what those changes might be,” Christie’s Richard Lloyd said, according to the BBC.

The painting itself is blurry and hard to decipher. It shows a man with a wide forehead and round face, dressed in black, facing slightly away from the viewer and positioned in front of a dark background. The actual detail of the painting only takes up part of the canvas — much of it is a blank, beige color.

But how was the work created, and who else — or, perhaps, what else — is creating work like this?

According to Christie’s, a French art collective called Obvious is behind the painting, and has presented several other portraits of the fictional Belamy family.

“The algorithm is composed of two parts,” said Hugo Caselles-Dupré, a member of the collective, according to the auction house. “On one side is the Generator, on the other the Discriminator. We fed the system with a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th century to the 20th. The Generator makes a new image based on the set, then the Discriminator tries to spot the difference between a human-made image and one created by the Generator. The aim is to fool the Discriminator into thinking that the new images are real-life portraits. Then we have a result.”

The final image is then printed with an Inkjet printer onto a canvas and signed with the algorithm used to guide the “painting” process, according to Obvious. On its website, Obvious says its goal is to “explain and democratize” the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning through its art. But they say humans will probably stick around to create portraits too.

“There is enough space for us all,” said Gauthier Vernier, another member of Obvious, according to The (UK) Telegraph.“ We see this as a new branch of art, in the same way as photography was in the 1800s. We’re a new generation of creatives, but we certainly won’t replace other innovative artists.”



Obvious isn’t the only group making AI-controlled art. The Art and Artificial Intelligence Lab at Rutgers University has been using an artificial intelligence called AICAN to create colorful, abstract and trippy pieces of work since 2017. One of them sold for $16,000, Rutgers professor Ahmed Elgammal, who works with AICAN, wrote for The Conversation.

In the new book "Microtrends Squared," authors Mark Penn and Meredith Fineman write about the growing influence AI is having on our everyday lives. Amazon's Alexa is one example.

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