People feel emotions even with computer-generated art

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Fig. 1: left: Example of a human-generated artwork; right: Example of a computer
Fig. 1: left: Example of a human-generated artwork; right: Example of a computer-generated artwork C: Theresa Demmer

Man-made works of art, however, are viewed more positively. Computers and artificial intelligence (AI) are also becoming increasingly important in the art world. AI-generated artworks fetch millions at auction, and artists routinely use algorithms to generate aesthetic content. A team of scientists at the University of Vienna has now been able to show through experiments that, contrary to common assumptions, people perceive emotions and intentions when viewing art even if they know that the work was generated by a computer. The study was recently published in the journal Computer in Human Behavior .

In a new study, a team from the University of Vienna in cooperation with the Humboldt University in Berlin, led by Theresa Demmer, investigated whether people also react emotionally to art or recognize intentionality in art that they think was generated by a computer. The researchers showed subjects abstract, black-and-white artworks that were either randomly generated by a computer or designed by a person, the latter with the intention of conveying emotion. "We didn’t use AI or a self-learning algorithm fed with human-made images for the computer-generated images, but a very simple algorithm. In this way, we wanted to make it possible to get images that are not based on man-made images, but are really as free as possible from human influence," Demmer explains. Not part of the research was the deeper and technical question of whether and when art can be created by computers that is indistinguishable in appearance from man-made.

Before viewing the individual artworks, the participants were told whether the artwork was supposedly made by a computer or a person - in half of the cases this information was also true. Afterwards, the participants were asked to evaluate the artworks with regard to various criteria. In addition, they were asked to indicate which emotions they themselves had felt when viewing the artwork, which emotions they believed the artwork was intended to trigger in the viewer, and which - if any - emotions the artists themselves presumably felt when creating the artwork.

The results showed that the subjects almost always felt at least some emotions and perceived some intentionality.

The study thus provided new empirical evidence that people can form emotional connections to computer-generated art, so contrary to common assumptions, people seem to perceive emotions and intentions even when they know something came from a computer. However, they reported stronger emotions and rated the artwork more positively when it was actually created by a person - even when they had been given the false information that the art was computer-generated.
Thus, the results also show that a subtle but significant difference in emotional impact remains between human and artificial art. This could indicate special characteristics in human-made art that are perceived by viewers.

Overall, the results raise new questions for human-computer interaction and the growing role of AI as a creative entity in art, design, and entertainment. How do humans respond to more complex artworks generated by AIs, and what are characteristics by which humans can distinguish computer- and human-generated art-if any? Further studies are needed to understand the complex relationship between humans and machines in this field.

Original publication:

Does an emotional connection to art really require a human artist? Emotion and intentionality responses to AI- versus human-created art and impact on aesthetic experience. Theresa Rahel Demmer, Corinna Kühnapfel, Joerg Fingerhut, Matthew Pelowski. Computers in Human Behavior
DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2023.107875