Can a Computer Tell Good Art From Bad?

We tend to think of aesthetic judgment as something particularly human, but a group of Xerox engineers are building an algorithm for finding good photographs

Xerox has unveiled an early version of a program that can discern the content of a photo ("no text tags required or used!" the site says) and sorts photos into "good" and "bad" -- subjective judgments we normally leave up to humans.

The program isn't perfect. Some images are not categorized accurately -- pictures of "Clouds_Sky" includes a photo of a woman dancing in a club, partially obscured by the clouds from a fog machine, and "Beach" includes a paper crane sitting on top of sheet music. Additionally, the "good" photos all look quite similar, the parameters perhaps being set a bit narrowly (surely some good portraits have light backgrounds?).  But because there's disagreement among humans about aesthetic quality, perfect is an elusive measure, even if the program were completely accurate. Despite its flaws, on balance the program's picks for "good" images are more dramatic and more interesting (if a bit stock-artsy) than the photos it defines as "bad." (Above, take a look at some samples from the program and the judgment the computer rendered. The images come from thumbnails, so apologies for the low resolution.)

A computer may not know good from bad, but if the factors that set good and bad apart are quantifiable (contrast, clarity, composition), then a computer can imitate that judgment. 

Image: Xerox.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Technology

Just In