How an AI drawing program shook the art world in the 1970s

In 1971, artist Harold Cohen (1928 – 2016) became a visiting scholar at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. There, he created a computer program called Aaron to answer the question, "What are the minimum conditions under which a set of marks functions as an image?"

The first iteration of Aaron generated abstract drawings. Later iterations in the 1980s drew rocks, plants, people, and other animals. Cohen's program was one of the first examples of how AI could be used in creative fields like art.

In a paper titled "How to Make a Drawing," which Cohen submitted to the National Bureau of Standards in 1982, he predicted that advancements in AI would result in a "cultural shock-wave of unprecedented proportions."

Aaron was clearly not a tool in an orthodox sense. It was closer to being a sort of assistant, if the need for an human analogue persists, but not an assistant which could learn what I wanted done by looking at what I did myself, the way any of Rubens' assistants could see perfectly well for themselves what a Rubens painting was supposed to look like. This was not an assistant which could perform any better for having done a thousand drawings, not an assistant which could bring anything approximating to a human cognitive system to bear on the production of drawings intended for human use. A computer program is not a human being. But it IS the case, presumably, that any entity capable of adapting its performance to circumstances which were unpredictable when its performance began exhibits intelligence: whether that entity is human or not. We are living on the crest of a cultural shock-wave of unprecedented proportions, which thrusts a new kind of entity into our world: something less than human, perhaps, but potentially capable of many of the higher intellectual functions — it is too early still to guess HOW many — we have supposed to be uniquely human. We are in the process of coming to terms with the fact that "intelligence" no longer means, uniquely, "human intelligence."

See examples of Aaron's work here.

[Thumbnail image: Prompt "abstract art output from an 1971 AI art making program" Boing Boing/MidJourney (not from Aaron)]