Rembrandt van Rijn finished his last painting in 1669, the year he died. So it was enthralling, and a little unsettling, to step on to a boat at the Cannes Lions festival for a private viewing of the first new Rembrandt in 347 years.
In a fascinating merging of creativity and technology, the humans at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam taught a computer to paint like Rembrandt by having it study the old master's works for months. The resulting painting is a completely new portrait, not a replica, and it's indistinguishable—to my eye, at least—from the real thing.
The project, created for banking client ING, won 16 Lions at Cannes this summer, including two Grand Prix (in Cyber and Creative Data) and a coveted Innovation Lion. It's a piece of marvelous technical and philosophical complexity. And since its official unveiling in Amsterdam earlier this year, it's become a controversial flash point between the worlds of technology and creativity—raising uncomfortable questions about the future of artificial intelligence and art.
We've come to accept that computers are, in some ways, smarter than humans, or at least more powerfully logical. (They can beat us at chess and Jeopardy, after all.) We have a harder time, especially those of us in the creative industries, entertaining the question of whether machines could ever be as creative as humans. Creativity is supposed to be our exclusive province, the spark that makes us special, the thing computers could never dream of mastering.
"The Next Rembrandt" questions that, much to the glee of many technologists and the consternation of many art historians.