This photo bot will make you smile - whether you like it or not

(Image credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

If you're feeling like there hasn't been a lot to smile about when it comes to world news this year, you wouldn't be alone. But design researcher Tom White has decided to take matters into his own hands.

He's developed a bot called 'Smilevector' that crawls the web looking for images of people, then adds or removes smiles to their faces. Why? To investigate whether machines can exhibit creative intelligence.

"It has examined hundreds of thousands of faces to learn the difference between images, by finding relations and reapplying them," said White. "When the computer finds an image it looks to identify if the person is smiling or not. If there isn't a smile, it adds one, but if there is a smile then it takes it away."

A form of puppetry

White describes the process as a form of puppetry. "These systems are domain independent, meaning you can do it with anything—from manipulating images of faces to shoes to chairs," he said. "It's really fun and interesting to work in this space. There are lots of ideas to play around with."

With machine learning and AI starting to have implications for people in the creative industries, White says the time is right to question what this means for creativity: "I'm interested in exploring what these systems are capable of doing but also how it changes what we think of as being creative is in the first place."

"Once you have a system that can automate processes, is that still a creative act? If you can make something a completely push of the button operation, does its meaning change?"

Just another tool

Ultimately, White believes, AI is just another tool that artists can use - people have always used creative tools by giving commands, and machine learning is no different. 

"I think we're moving toward more of a collaboration with computers," he said, "where there's an intelligent system that's making suggestions and helping steer the process."

The full details of how Smilevector works can be found in a paper published on the arXiv preprint server.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.