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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Aesthetics by a Nose

I was at a homey, homely seafood restaurant along the Potomac not too long ago. As is the fashion now, televisions dotted the walls so that no seat in the house would be without. The screen in my distant view was tuned to horse-racing. Since gambling was the reason for the broadcast, the odds for each race were displayed ‘screen-in-screen’ and would occasionally update based on the latest wagers. At the top of the screen, in large font, was displayed the name of the race. The one that caught my eye was ‘Saratoga Sweepstakes’ or something close to that. I  paid attention because my daughter was in school in upstate New York- but then I remembered that she had said the racing season in Saratoga Springs ended on Labor Day and it was now mid-October. I initially dismissed it as a re-reun, but how can there be live gambling on a recorded race? I moved closer to the television and saw that the horses, gates, venue, crowd —everything — was computer-generated.

Why? The unadorned, underlying game would be a standard, state regulated lottery; nothing more than randomly generated numbers. Some computer programmer had been paid to take this numbers game and cloak it in computer generated horse-flesh and silks to… to do what?

Gambling promotion is interested in maximizing volume. How to sell the most games? Variety might generate more sales. Any visitor to a convenience store could look at the grand array of lottery tickets under the glass at the counter and know that the gambling promoter believes that different variations of the same game, cloaked in different colors, names and betting levels appeal to different consumers. But it’s not as if different gambling companies are competing for customers’s eyes - it’s all through the state. That would be the same reason for the digital horserace ‘shell’ that covers the numbers game on the TV screen. Now, these bland number games looks like a horserace to appeal to the human who is doing the buying- an appeal to aesthetics.

Seeing horses racing on the track provided something that the developers believed would be more attractive for the viewers. Knowing the nature of a horse race with long-shots, lead changes and victory by a literal nose is more compelling than seeing random numbers appear from the ether and take their place on the screen like a police line-up. There’s an aesthetic to horse racing that is absent from strictly numbers gambling.

In another example, a gambling company has created virtual football games, promoted as CPU vs CPU. The game is narrated by color commentators breathlessly describing a one-hand reception in the end zone—but the receiver doing the catching is a  spandex-clad pile of ones and zeros - he could just as easily have leapt 500 feet to catch a cannonball mid-flight. High-fives, late afternoon sun, chalk-talk clipboard discussions with the coach, all are part of the imagery that makes this virtual game look almost-real. I wondered if the commentators were AI as well. Their purpose is an aural complement for the same purpose -, to properly ape the homo-sapien version that humans so love to elicit the desire to gamble.

I believe that sport has a claim to the mantle of Art for reasons I won’t lay out here. But there’s no denying that pitting one town’s athletes against another town’s is gripping stuff. We love the competition, and seeing the drama unfold though grace and power on the court, diamond, racetrack or gridiron is satisfying. But it is humans seeing themselves projected into the event that provides the spark.

The Turing Test has long been the metric for gauging the progress of machine learning; the basis being when an average human could not reliably identify a written text as ‘computer generated’.In the burgeoning ‘AI’ era, a variation on the Turing Test might be useful to gauge art. If art were produced by AI would an average human care?

Years ago, a movie, Man on Wire, followed a group of French, high wire walkers a they planned and executed a high wire show at the top of the not-yet-completed twin towers of the World Trade Center. The humans on the street looked up to see one of their own 1/4 mile in the air on a wire that was virtually invisible to their eyes. The sublime thrill was in imagining themselves up there as well. Would they have bothered to look up if it were a machine?

Japanese engineers have created a robot that can shoot baskets with 100% accuracy. Would an average human pay to see it? Speaking as an average human, I would— once. Would I buy season tickets to see robot teams play each other? No. The simulated football games and horse races seem to be effective vehicles for gambling; could they be used purely for entertainment? I doubt it.

E-sports have become popular among gamers. There is an audience who enjoys watching other people play video games. Competitions have sprung up around the sport with big money and bragging rights on the line. Would those gamers want to see a computer play a video game? It’s a meta concept but, supposedly, the action on the screen would be similar to the human version but probably better.

We’ve had people play computers in chess. Would having two computers play each other be a satisfying exercise for anyone other than the programmers?

CGI and AI are making extraordinary leaps to infiltrate not only the utilitarian aspects of life, but now the aesthetic realm as well. Rather than parsing only physics and non-fiction, the bots are scraping the things that make us most human with that scraping directed by humans for the purpose of appealing to humans.

Which art forms are in the scope of AI and how will artists/art patrons respond?

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