The Millions

If on a Winter’s Night a Computer

It’s 1979 and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is published. It is revelatory! The novel is lauded for its “post-modernist” narrative, “labyrinthine” structure, and ability to play with the notions of being “a reader.” It’s all very new and cool and futuristic. What draws less attention is the novel’s vision of AI authors, their potential role in creating apocryphal human art, and Calvino’s use of an algorithm to formulate the plot.

It’s 2016, and the art world is graced with its first piece of AI apocrypha when developers create a “new” Rembrandt portrait, except it isn’t by Rembrandt. The Next Rembrandt, as it is known, is a computer-generated 3D print-painting created using a facial recognition algorithm informed by data from 346 paintings by the man himself. It is comprised of 148 million pixels and based on 168,263 fragments of works by Rembrandt and, by referencing all his other portraits, makes a computer’s best guess at what he might have painted next. It is—I am disappointed to say—fairly convincing. But using an algorithm to create a picture is a very different process than writing a book.

is punctuated by the handiwork of one of its main characters, a fiendish translator called Ermes Marana, who puts

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