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Experiencing beauty: a symptom of intelligence?

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

In the realm of what artificial intelligence (AI) can (not) do compared to humans, I want to share some thoughts in this post on something that has fascinated me lately: the experience of beauty.


Have you ever visited a museum and encountered a piece of art that was so beautiful that it elicited an emotional response from you without you being able to control it? Or maybe have you ever seen someone so pretty, you simply stared at them for a moment in admiration?


Let's assume as an adult you have at least once.


From an evolutionary perspective you may question yourself why we have this ability to experience beauty. Scientific research suggests that beauty in people's physical features tells us something about their physical and reproductive qualities. We like to see symmetry and certain proportions in a body. Various studies even show that people rate more attractive people as more trustworthy. However, we as humans also see beauty in things other than potential mating partners.


A key to beauty lies in the basic perception of contrast


Our eyes are naturally drawn to contrast, as this forms an efficient signaling mechanism for deviations from the default. You can easily test this and other properties of visual perception with optical illusions like below.


They are both the same colour.
A or B, which colour is lighter?

Great masters of art like Rembrandt and Van Gogh (yes, there is a Dutch bias here) are especially great at creating contrast. Look for instance at the mesmerizing chiaroscuro (intensified light-dark contrast) in the famous "Night Watch" painting:


The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn

This suggests that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. That is, in a very literal physiological perceptual processing way. Yet, once again, experiencing beauty does not seem to stop at the limits of mere perception either.


Various scientific studies show that people can experience beauty in mathematics, too. For example, a recently published study further explores the idea that the same people experience aesthetic beauty in both an abstract domain such as mathematics as well as in artworks and music. It requires a certain level of abstract reasoning to be able to see beauty in elegant mathematical formulas. Could our ability to experience beauty therefore be a more fundamental aspect of our cognitive capabilities?


Aesthetic pleasure as a separate type of emotion?


If "detection" of beauty would only be a form of perceptual collateral, how can we explain the emotional arousal that we feel when seeing something beautiful? For instance, I can very clearly recall seeing a brutally bright red coloured Rothko painting and feeling tears well up in my eyes because I found it so utterly beautiful.


There are various psychological as well as philosophical theories about what beauty is and where the experience thereof originates. Two interesting schools of thought here are 1. the predominant idea that beauty comes from cognitive processing fluency, and 2. in a recent attempt to "naturalize" Kant's philosophy on aesthetics, it is argued that experiencing beauty (more commonly termed aesthetic pleasure) can be regarded as a separate type of emotion.


My take on this is: for the experience of beauty to be a distinct emotion, it should attest to the basic definition of what an emotion is and why we have this emotion. This is still under debate.


Essentially, as a psychologist I see emotions as functions of motivation. Because without emotions, we would not feel any motivation to do anything. This means that by definition an emotion should be able to alter our inclination to do XYZ. Thus: if experiencing beauty is a distinct emotion, it should motivate us directly to do XYZ.


Let's say I hear a piece of piano music that I find beautiful. This may stimulate me to start learning to play piano. Does this mean the aesthetic pleasure I experienced was the direct reason for me to take piano lessons? I am not sure. Because here an explanation is that recognizing beauty as a qualitative aspect of the music led to a feeling of satisfaction, forgiveness and joy. These feelings consequently motivated me to pursue playing piano, instead of the (perceptual) experience of beauty in the first place.


Beauty is a fundamental biological goal and can potentially be described with mathematics


Regardless of whether the experience of beauty can be classified as a unique emotion or not, what is rather striking to me is our obsession with it. We as human beings naturally seek things that we find beautiful. I would therefore go even further to say that beauty as a quality is so fundamental to nature, that our ability to "detect" and experience it is an innate cognitive mechanism. It deals with the way nature "likes" to structure and order itself. Hence other species must have some form of experiencing beauty, too. A primitive ability that organisms use to decide with whom to mate that also serves as a generic guide for what to create. Something that gets extrapolated from evaluating someone's physical features to everything in the world we can perceive - including abstract, purely imaginary things.


For example by looking at thousands years old cave paintings we can learn that humans valued aesthetics in their surroundings already in ancient times. Beauty enhances people's living environments and shows how people were fascinated by nature to (re)create something beautiful.


Artwork from approximately 9300 years ago in Cueva de los Manos, Argentina

Beauty may also be mathematically describable, as well as found directly in practicing maths itself. An example often cited is the golden ratio. 1.618:1 tends to be found in many things that are generally considered beautiful, albeit some skeptics doubt the universality of this claim. Something else we find in nature are tessellation patterns such as the way honeycomb hexagons are organized and surface crack patterns, which can be formally described.


Nonetheless, if beauty as a quality indeed is a fundamental objective in nature for which our perceptual abilities are optimized, it should be possible to capture it by describing it with quantitative functions. Which brings me to the final bridge of this post: if artificial intelligence systems should be able to experience beauty.


Intelligence comes with the ability to perceive beauty in higher levels of abstraction


I am beginning to think that the ability to perceive and experience beauty can actually be seen as a hallmark of intelligence. Regardless of what it is exactly that one considers to be beautiful, the ability to (consciously) experience beauty tells us to what abstraction level a system (be it a human or machine) can process what it perceives. That is, a less intelligent entity is not able to perceive complex things and therefore cannot experience the beauty that can objectively be found in them.


Psychologically, perception entails the interpretation of detected stimuli via our senses. To interpret these stimuli means to identify patterns in the stimuli data and give meaning to these patterns. How one gives meaning to the patterns is based on whatever information, biases or heuristics one already has during this process - such as personality traits, cultural values and environmental context.


When the identified patterns match certain fundamental (mathematical?) qualities that are deemed to be found "beautiful", one experiences beauty. Now, given that high intelligence entails exquisite pattern recognition, one needs to be "intelligent enough" to identify and match highly intricate patterns to a predisposed ideal to experience beauty.


To put it bluntly: not everyone will be able to understand Einstein's field equations to explain general relativity and therefore will never be able to experience the mathematical beauty of them. Vice versa, one may not find beauty in these equations in the first place and therefore not feel inspired to explore them further.


Fibonacci sequence and golden ratio in nature.

Beauty principles as vehicle for creativity in AI


In the road toward developing artificial general intelligence (AGI), it is a valid question to ask if machines should have the exact same abilities as humans do. Thus, whether AI also needs to be able to experience beauty.


Since AGI is defined as AI that matches human level intelligence, it seems plausible that AI should be able to at least recognize beauty as well. This is important, because it closely relates to creativity. When we create anything, it seems to be done with a predisposition, a desire for what we consider beautiful or even as a reaction to what is generally considered beautiful. Whether it is creating art, music, technological inventions, new scientific theorems: we seem to have a natural inclination to do this in an elegant, beautiful way. Vice versa, beauty stimulates continuity through the inspiration we feel when experiencing it. Therefore, something as fundamental as perception of beauty needs to be part of an intelligent system to give it motivation and a guidance for creation.


One way is to unravel the (mathematical) principles or patterns that define beauty in nature as an evaluative "framework" to be used by AI. By feeding this into for instance a reinforcement learning model, the AI is going to learn what it should and should not consider to be beautiful.


There are some researchers looking into related topics. You can for instance check out recent psychological literature on the various aspects that beauty comprises of. One can regard these as "reasons" for why something is beautiful.


Another source I found fascinating is a documentary from 2015 "The Origami Code" in which scientists and artists talk about how they study nature's way of folding and entanglement, as well as the work of this group of mathematicians.


In conclusion


In this post I have introduced you to various perspectives regarding the function of experiencing beauty. From an evolutionary, physiological, psychological to a mathematical point of view, this exercise in inductive reasoning arrived at the following hypotheses:

  • Beauty is a universal quality that we as humans can experience through any object, whether in physical or abstract space.

  • Basic perceptual functions are optimized to sense contrast and proportions, from which we can derive patterns that match certain "beauty principles".

  • Aesthetic pleasure is not per se a distinct emotion, but provokes other emotions that motivate people to better understand the beautiful entity.

  • The ability to experience beauty can be seen as a hallmark of intelligence, depending on the level of abstraction in which beauty is experienced.

  • Principles of beauty may function as a fundamental predisposition which patterns can be mathematically described.

  • These principles act as a guide for creativity: an important trait that AGI should be capable of in the future. Hence, further research into how a machine could experience beauty is needed to eventually establish human-level AI.

I think this is a particularly beautiful topic that bridges science and art, which deserves more attention to ultimately better understand human nature and provides new avenues for AI development.


You can find references and other explanatory sources I used for writing this post in the hyperlinked text parts. I invite you to leave a comment to hear your thoughts on this topic. If you're too shy to comment, feel free to contact me personally to talk more or just give feedback, too.


Until next time!

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