Can AI make art more accessible? One museum models a safe way forward

Some people fear the rise of artificial intelligence could sound a death knell for artists, but this museum is using emerging technology to bring the creative process to life.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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The past 12 months have seen a rapid rise in both the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and a vociferous response to the technology that can be broadly classified in two camps.

In one camp are excited amateurs who are using generative AI tools from technology giants, such as OpenAI, Microsoft, and Google, to create content from prompts in seconds.

Also: How to write better ChatGPT prompts for the best generative AI results

In the second camp are creatives -- from writers and musicians to coders and artists -- who fear their hard-learned professional skills could be undermined by the capabilities of generative AI.

This second camp fears their intellectual property is often being exploited without their agreement to train the models that power generative AI models.

Yet sitting between these two camps are organizations and individuals who are looking to create benefits from AI in a safe and ethical manner.

One of these pioneering professionals is Birgitte Aga, head of innovation and research at Munch Museum (MUNCH) in Oslo, Norway, which contains the world's most extensive collection of art dedicated to the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

With 27,000 artworks, non-art objects and writings -- spread across 11 galleries on 13 floors --  the museum wants to show the best parts of its collection to the widest possible audience.

Aga's role is to help MUNCH achieve its objectives through the effective exploitation of emerging technologies, such as AI, machine learning (ML), and more.

Now, in a leading-edge project alongside technology giant TCS, Aga and her colleagues at MUNCH are finding new ways to demonstrate how AI can boost interest in artistic endeavors, rather than just being a potential threat to creative processes.

Also: How to use Leonardo AI to generate stunning artwork and images

"The central point of what we create is the artwork," says Aga in a one-to-one video interview with ZDNET. "We're not replacing the painting with technology; we're enriching the experience."

TCS and MUNCH are designing, developing, and testing pioneering AI and ML technologies connected to the museum's database of 7,000 original drawings.

"We need to get people into the museum and get them engaged," says Aga. "One of the ways we're doing that is through technology. We are rethinking how you can make an archive of artworks relevant to the audience through the practice of drawing."

The two organizations are training an ML algorithm with Munch's drawings and developing a user interface that allows museum visitors to become immersed in his artwork.

Aga describes the interface, which is currently at the prototype stage, as "a back projection on a transparent surface."

When a user places a sheet of paper on the interface and starts drawing, their pen marks are met with a projected line from the machine-learning algorithm in real time: "The AI guides them to explore their own and Munch's creative drawing process simultaneously."

Also: The best AI chatbots: ChatGPT and other noteworthy alternatives

While the rapid rise of generative AI applications -- such as Midjourney and DALL-E -- has shown the game-changing power of emerging technology, Aga believes MUNCH's pioneering collaboration with TCS highlights how the old world can work hand-in-hand with the new.

"AI in our sector is a very sensitive subject. We understand our role in society is to be a platform to discuss what AI is and what effect it has on liberty, society, and the individual," she says.

"Our work is about reassuring audiences and partners that AI is not going to replace the museum or Edvard Munch. And I think it's super-exciting to think about what this technology can do for audiences and how we can reach more people."

Aga recognizes that the ethical application of emerging technology is a crucial success factor, which is something other experts have mentioned before.

Avivah Litan, distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, explained to me last year how any executives dabbling in emerging technology must "manage the risks before they manage you."

Also: The 3 biggest risks from generative AI - and how to deal with them

Gartner recently polled 700-plus executives about the risks of generative AI and discovered CIOs are most concerned about data privacy, followed by hallucinations, and then security.

Litan says executives must make sure they use data and AI in a way that's acceptable to the organization, its people, and its customers.

Aga says MUNCH has a talented team of mediators and learning specialists who explore how to make Edvard Munch's art relevant to the general public.

"We start with user need," she says. "We have users that come to the museum, such as young adults, who want an interactive and participatory experience. They don't want to just come and stand in front of a painting."

Also: The best AI art generators: DALL-E 2 and fun alternatives to try

However, creating a great, data-led experience is far from straightforward. For a start, there's a time lag in many current generative AI interfaces between the input of a prompt and the output of content.

"There are lots of technology and research challenges that we haven't encountered before," says Aga. "We're trying to decipher how an artist drew while, at the same time, trying to create a user interface that works in real time."

Yet Aga says the museum's AI-led project is progressing well. Depending on the success of the prototyping stage and user feedback, the interface could be used to create a new experience for audiences in locations beyond Oslo in the future.

"AI is super-interesting for us in terms of both research and innovation. We're very excited to be working with TCS," she says. "The project is about presenting Munch's work and making it relevant. We're only starting the exploration. This is the first test on how we can work together and we'll see where else this initiative can go."

Also: The ethics of generative AI: How we can harness this powerful technology

In fact, more data-led innovation is already taking place. The Museum's MUNCH Audience Lab, for example, continues to explore a range of technology-based experiences for all kinds of audiences.

Aga says her organization is exploring how language models might help to create a knowledge base of the museum's vast collection.

MUNCH is also part of a broader European project that's investigating how AI might help to predict color fading in art objects, with this insight used to bolster conservation efforts.

Whether it's through machine learning, immersive technology, or gaming, Aga says the museum's pioneering data initiatives aim to introduce digital systems carefully and effectively.

"Emerging technology that's implemented in the wrong way can threaten liberty, equality, individuality, and creativity," she says.

"But emerging technology that's applied in the right way can provide knowledge, research, and understanding. We're custodians of the artwork for Oslo's inhabitants. And our job is to conserve, present, and make relevant Munch's artistry to the people."

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