But is it art? Maltese artist Mark Mallia teaches AI system rudiments of painting

World-first auction of human-AI art part to be held during Malta Blockchain Awards in a unique collaboration between artist and artificial intelligence 

At work in his studio, artist Mark Mallia
At work in his studio, artist Mark Mallia

Can art be created by anything other than human creativity? Can artificial intelligence working hand-in-hand with a human artist learn artistic concepts and produce its own original art? 

In a three month-long collaboration between Maltese artist Mark Mallia and Umnai’s AI system Uma (for Universal Machine Artist), a new form of artistic expression is being created: the emergence of human-directed AI art. 

The human artist acts as a muse and mentor to the AI algorithms and the learning process, resulting in Uma’s creation of an original creative work. 

Mark Mallia is currently teaching Uma Umnai the basics of painting and artistic expression, by going back to his style as it was two decades ago when he was working as an artist in Miami and gradually painting examples that reflect his evolution up to the present day. 

The AI is learning how painting style evolves, and having an artist in residence at hand, gets much more insight into the creative process itself. 

The first result of this collaboration is a set of paintings – the first one by Mark, “Agnes and Ingrid” and Uma’s interpretation of it – “Agnes and Ingrid Re-Imagined”. 

Mark says that he consciously tried to produce a work that does not easily fit with his current artistic style, going into “cycles of loathing” his own painting. But Mallia says that while “Agnes and Ingrid” itself does not sum up his style, Uma, being trained on his evolving style, has produced a painting that is, in Mallia's own words, ‘more true to Mark’ than his own “Agnes and Ingrid”. 

Unlike some other projects in the realm of creative AI that simply use the same code and thousands of paintings to train a neural network-based AI, Uma used thevideo of each painting as it was created stroke by stroke, gaining insight into the build-up of creative expression. This was then augmented with a couple of hundred images of Mark’s paintings that define his style. 

“Agnes and Ingrid Re-Imagined” is signed by Uma, with the Umnai logo representing her surname, simultaneously identifying it as unique artwork produced by an AI entity. 

The collaboration between Mark and Uma was conceived by Angelo Dalli, the CEO of Umnai. Behind the scenes, Uma has been trained and perfected by Mauro Pirrone, Umnai’s Chief Software Architect. Uma itself exists on a couple of hundred servers on the cloud. 

“The origins of Uma lie in work done by Umnai on anti-fraud systems, where we learnt about a method called Generative Adversarial Networks that uses two networks that work against each other – one that creates an example image and one that ‘critiques’ it,” Dalli says. 

“During our work, we realised that if we apply a hierarchy of GANs we can add structure and achieve better results, leading to our patent pending anti-fraud technology. For Uma, we modified the technology to generate images under the supervision of a human artist. In Uma, the artist acts as a third adversary and mentor to the two GAN adversaries – leading to possibly some of the first ever truly creative art created by AI.” 

The Art vs Artificial auction that will be held during the Malta Blockchain Awards on the 31st of October.