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Putting the "Art" in
Artificial Intelligence

Putting the "Art" in
Artificial Intelligence


Putting the "Art" in Artificial Intelligence 

 For Steve DiPaola, the worlds of art and science overlap nearly seamlessly.

The great leap forward theory proposes that, approximately fifty thousand years ago, our species experienced a boom in terms of cognitive abilities, such as bounds in technological ingenuity, social savvy and artistic creativity. For almost three decades, SFU professor Steve DiPaola has studied such traits with an eye to incorporating close approximations of them into 2D, 3D and Virtual Reality software tools.

A cognitive scientist and computer based scientist, DiPaola joined SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology in 2002 where he has since led the Interactive Visualization lab (iVizLab), a team of computer science-oriented artists, programmers, postdocs and PhDs who strive to create computational systems that reflect human facial expressions, body gestures, emotions, behaviours and creativity by incorporating research on biological, cognitive and behavioural traits. DiPaola is also known for his artificial intelligence-based (AI) computational art which has been exhibited internationally, including at The Whitney in New York City and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“I have never seen the schism between science and art. To me, they both involve a search for truth and beauty,” he says.  “And my lab’s techniques for computer modeling is the best way I know of to have significant art-science research conversations via interdisciplinary research.”

One of the main through lines of DiPaola’s research has been the exploration of computational creativity as a technique for demystifying how cognitive based human creativity works.  For example, by using AI-based deep learning algorithms to “teach” software what a human face is, what a background is, how light and color work, and so on, his lab has developed tools that enable people and computers to co-create new digital works in the style of artists from Picasso to the Futurists. The software is currently being prototyped with Fraser Health for use in hospitals to help patients experience the relaxation that comes from creating.

In February 2008, images created by DiPaola appeared in the journal Nature to illustrate an article honouring the Father of Evolution, Charles Darwin. To create DarwinsGaze, he programmed software to “evolve” artistic renderings from a digitized portrait of Darwin. The Java-based AI program works by applying genetic algorithms such as crossover, mutation and survival to create abstract artworks, while simultaneously learning about the processes of evolution and creativity.

DiPaola is also known for his 3D facial simulation research and tools which have taken on many forms over the years, including Electronics Art’s perennially popular game “The Sims”, first launched in 2002. And, in 2014, DiPaola and collaborator Dr. Liane Gabora of the University of British Columbia launched FaceFries, an app that features a 3D, animated avatar that can help users express themselves, empathize with others, and even see themselves morphed into different genders or ethnicities. Beyond the amusement factor, it can foster creativity and has potential to help autistic children better recognize communication cues.

DiPaola’s and his lab have also worked with “spaces” other than the human face: in 2006, the Vancouver Aquarium asked them to create a virtual beluga whale exhibit as a tool to teach the public how beluga families behave in the wild. Developed in collaboration with NASA researcher Bill Kraus, AI was merged with marine mammal research data to create real-time animation and organic movement that enabled visitors to “feel the rush of scientific discovery and reflect on the life of these amazing animals,” DiPaola told SFU News at the time.

These snapshots represent only a fraction of DiPaola’s past, current and, inevitably, future research projects. “We’ve barely begun to see the potential held by computational modeling and AI techniques in terms of illuminating the modern human’s creative and expressive cognitive abilities,” he says. 


Dr. Steve DiPaola leads the iVizLab at SFU and is a past director of the University's Cognitive Science Program. His interdisciplinary lab creates computation models of human expression, emotion, behavior and creativity, most often for the gaming, sciences, arts, and health fields. He came to SFU from Stanford University and before that, the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab, which was an early pioneering lab in high-end graphics techniques. He is also known for his AI based computational art and 3D facial expression systems. His computer based art has been exhibited internationally including at the AIR and Tibor de Nagy galleries in NYC, Tenderpixel Gallery in London and Cambridge University’s Kings Art Centre. The work has also been exhibited in major museums, including the Whitney Museum, the MIT Museum, and the Smithsonian.

Q & A with Steve DiPaola

What motivates you as a researcher?

I see myself and my lab as part of a 2,000-year-long passing of the torch in terms of knowledge and progress. While wars, selfishness and other negative aspects of the humanity exist, scientists and artists (I consider myself a bit of both) are on another track, archiving and progressing human understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe.

How is your research making an impact on lives?

The virtual characters we create using expressions of the human face and body can be used in education systems to engage with. We are creating VR systems that also allow users to immerse themselves in worlds–this could one day be used in many health related areas: virtual healing gardens that de-stress nurses and patients, virtual worlds that psychologists could potentially use to help clients break through deep psychoses and traumas.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

More and more research is becoming too complex for researchers to work alone and I collaborate on every level. My lab's 9 PhDs come from different fields (mainly computer science, but cognitive science and artists, too) and we work with faculty and outside experts including dancers, anthropologists and game narrative experts.

I left my position at Stanford for SIAT because I heard the school is built on an interdisciplinary, art-meets-science philosophy, with cognitive scientists, computer scientists, anthropologists, and designers all coming together to collaborate.

What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as a researcher?

Interdisciplinary research is hard but worth it. Show the doubters (who only see silos) that there is another way.

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?

The work I do in artificial intelligence–the ability to make a tool that can think along side a human on their work–will revolution everything, including universities.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

SFU has shown that it can generate top research while also being community focused. I hope SIAT and the University as a whole will not only be the best at it, but be a shining light to other schools that assume you need to be one or the other.