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Computer-Assisted Art – the Fascination of AI Design

7 min reading time
Creativity is seen as one of the final bastions of the human mind. Now, however, artificial intelligence is even penetrating the worlds of art and design. Read more about the applications of artificial intelligence – and how car designers are using it to their advantage.

30 October 2018


“A computer paints a new Rembrandt.” “Music compositions at the push of a button.” “Will artificial intelligence put designers out of a job?”

No, these aren’t taken from a futuristic daydream but are real-life news about digital art from the last few years.

In the Netherlands, for example, art experts used 3D scans to digitize 346 paintings by Rembrandt. They then fed the data into a deep learning algorithm and set a task that would test the program’s ability to learn. On the basis of artificial intelligence (AI), a picture was to be created depicting a “white, middle-aged man with facial hair” wearing “black clothes with a white collar and a hat.”

The resulting image (see right), made up of 148 million pixels and 150 gigabytes of data, was then 3D-printed to give it the same texture as an oil painting. The digital “painting” was so authentic-looking that even experts thought they were seeing an original Rembrandt.

Digital Art to listen to

AI has also enjoyed its first successes in the world of music. As well as composing digital classics at the touch of a button, AI-based software is also being used to create the background music for such computer games as Pixelfield. And in early 2018, Hello World by the French artist SKYGGE was described as “the first convincing album of AI music” by the German edition of “Wired”.

The human brain, then, is no longer the only place in which creative processes can occur. Even so, it’s still debatable as to whether we should view the digital artworks produced as evidence of true creativity. After all, the AI-produced Rembrandt is really a digital mash-up of existing paintings by the grand master rather than a new painting with its own signature.

It would be a mistake, though, to see the future potential of AI through the prism of what it can do right now. Indeed, the fact that digitally composed music sounds somewhat soulless right now doesn’t mean this will still be the case in ten years’ time.

AI design will allow creatives to concentrate on their real jobs.
Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook

AI and the role of the designer

Generative design furniture
From chairs (top left: SPADE Studio - Marco Hemmerling, Ulrich Nether, Philipp Meise) to skateboard trucks (below), generative design and 3D printing are changing the work of designers and engineers. What’s striking is the organic forms of the designs – as if the objects had naturally evolved.

What’s certain is that we are experiencing a change – or even a revolution – in the processes involved in art and design. And if an algorithm can design, compose, and write copy, this is bound to change the work done in the creative professions.

Berlin-based designer Andreas Läufer doesn’t share his colleagues’ fear of AI design: “Why aren’t we happy about the time we can save thanks to programs such as 3D printing software Dreamcatcher?” he asks in an interview with t3n magazine. “Ultimately, isn’t it more fun to develop concepts that generate emotions rather than spend time trying out 50 different font styles?” Apple CEO Tim Cook feels the same, saying that AI design will allow creatives to concentrate on their real jobs.

The Age of the Algorithm

AI design Airbus
For the Airbus partition wall, the algorithm mimicked the structure of a single-cell organism by linking multiple points in an extremely efficient, material-saving way.

Especially in the field of product design, AI has long since been accepted. Computers, in fact, have now designed furniture, bicycles, and even drones. The buzzword is “generative design.” In this process, designers and engineers are no longer using computers simply as passive machines. Instead, they are using AI algorithms and cloud computing to rapidly develop solutions with an infinite number of alternatives.

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus, for example, used generative AI design to devise a cabin partition for its A320 fleet. The developers first specified the technical parameters such as the dimensions and load capacity. Next, they developed design options using intelligent software. The generative system tested thousands of variants and configurations in a process that would have taken much longer if carried out manually. In each iteration, the algorithm learned more about what did and didn’t work. The final result was a partition wall that weighed 45% less than its predecessor but that was just as stable.The practical benefits of this AI design process were lower fuel consumption and lower emissions.

Artificial intelligence is enabling new approaches to be taken and is only in its infancy in the design process.
Holger Hampf
Holger Hampf

President Designworks BMW Group

Generative Design in the Automotive Sector

In the automotive and industrial fields, generative design is also making its presence felt. Holger Hampf is President of BMW subsidiary Designworks. His team is utilizing generative design techniques in fields including the design of new wheel rims and car seats for a wide variety of applications. “We are feeding both technical parameters and design concepts into the program. It has the ability to learn and takes into account the different specifications as it creates variants.”

But is that already computer creativity or even digital art? Does the form of a rim emerge completely from AI design according to the judgement of the computer? “AI is more of an aid in efficiency rather than in the development of entirely new designs,” says Hampf. “The designer is becoming more like a conductor; setting directions and making decisions.”

People add beauty to the game

Generative design BMW Alive Geometry
The “Alive Geometry” of the BMW VISION NEXT 100 concept car came about as a result of generative design. When the wheels turn during cornering, the bodywork keeps them covered as if it were a flexible skin.

BMW design expert Holger Hampf is sure of one thing: “Artificial intelligence is enabling new approaches to be taken and is only in its infancy in the design process. It already features in our day-to-day communications and is becoming more and more important.”

At a certain point, however, Hampf adds, human creativity comes into play. In an almost poetic way, he says, the designer brings “beauty to the game” – beauty and elegance, in fact. Hampf doesn’t believe that this intellectual and creative input can be achieved by machines working autonomously in the foreseeable future.

“There’s no doubt, however, that AI will be taking care of more and more day-to-day routine tasks.” He is convinced that such practices will be the norm within ten years at the most. “There’s still plenty of room, though, for autonomous decisions by the designer,” Hampf explains. “In our work, we give a voice to both the heart and the head. Only then can true beauty come into being.”

So AI is creating the time and space for designers to do what they are good at. After all, customers don’t just buy a car to get from A to B. They are also seeking an emotional experience. And that’s something that can only be achieved by a designer with a passion for the thing he or she creates.

The Future is Already Here

Domagoj Dukec
Domagoj Dukec, Head of Design for BMW i and BMW M.

Artificial intelligence is not the only technology that’s changing the world of automotive design. E-mobility and automated driving are also creating new opportunities for designers. An interview with Domagoj Dukec, head of Design for BMW i and BMW M, about designing the car of the future.

Interior BMW Vision iNEXT
The car becomes a relaxing, lounge-like area. The designers of the BMW Vision iNEXT are implementing this concept by means of features such as intelligent user interfaces.

Mr Dukec, what will a car look like in 15 years’ time? Like something from a sci-fi movie, perhaps?

Domagoj Dukec: I love science fiction movies. They look at the future and give it a concrete form. That requires real power of imagination. In respect to design we’ll be seeing a few fundamental changes that will revolutionize our understanding of what a car is.

What do you mean by a revolution in car design?

Dukec: In the not-too-distant future, cars will be increasingly autonomous. This will give customers greater freedom to decide and more autonomy to act. While they’ll still be able to drive, they will no longer need to do so and will be able to deal with other things instead. Our task lies in designing vehicles that meet these more diverse requirements.

What will that look like in practice? Can we see this, for example, in BMW’s Vision cars?

Dukec: Yes, in our new concept car, the BMW Vision iNEXT, for instance. It’s about gaining more time to live your life. Boutique hotels were an inspiration for the design of the interior as a place to feel good in. It has a purposely open design and allows for conversation. And when the driver switches to fully automated driving, there are four features that can be operated via intelligent interfaces. The technology deliberately fades into the background and only becomes visible and usable when it’s needed – simple and intuitive.

Engine electric carEngine electric car
In the process of “electrification,” basic components of the car are changing, with fuel tanks replaced by batteries, large combustion engines by small electric motors, and gear units by high-tech electronics.

The BMW Vision iNext is far ahead of its time. As another form of forward-looking technology, is e-mobility already impacting automotive design?

Dukec: Well, first of all, electric drive is just a technical description. In terms of design, it’s reflected in efficiency measures aimed at increasing the range and in the changes typically made to essential components. Fuel tanks are being replaced by batteries, large combustion engines by small electric motors, and gear units by high-tech electronics. Even in electrical vehicles, however, most customers still want to see a design language they may have admired as children. That’s why even in the future we’ll continue to preserve BMW’s brand values. These include the prototypical BMW kidney grilles, of course.

BMW electric cars
The BMW i3 (above) was the first vehicle to feature a blocked kidney grille. In the BMW i Vision Dynamics, it also becomes an intelligent space, housing the sensors for automated driving.

The BMW i3 was the first vehicle with a blocked kidney grille. What’s the reason for this particular design innovation?

Dukec: The BMW i3’s electric drive is located in the tail end. That’s why we need fewer air inlets at the front. We were therefore able to block the kidney grille to optimize the aerodynamics. In our Vision models such as the BMW i Vision Dynamics and the BMW Vision iNEXT, we’ve also integrated the automated driving sensors within the blocked kidney grille. The grille thus becomes an intelligent space, a fact we also emphasize with blue accents.

In these vehicles, how much is purely vision and how much is already reality?

Dukec: The BMW i Vision Dynamics and the BMW Vision iNEXT are a lot more than mere concept cars or design exercises. In them, we are giving the customer a promise of what they can expect from us in the future.



The BMW Vision iNEXT.

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