Alumnus David Young is transforming the field of AI-driven digital artwork

David Young
David Young
'dandelions' digital art
'Dandelions' by David Young
'winter woods' digital artwork
'Winter Woods' by David Young

Digital artist and Baskin Engineering alumnus David Young (Crown ‘86, computer and information science) began his journey at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1980s intent on approaching his undergraduate education through an interdisciplinary lens.

At the time, the computer and information science program only offered a bachelor of arts degree, which allowed Young to learn about computer science while also exploring fields far removed from science and technology.

“I knew UC Santa Cruz was going to be a great place to explore different academic pursuits,” he said. “A couple years before I arrived, I had just acquired a personal Apple II Plus computer, which was still a pretty unusual thing. The idea of exploring what I could do with that technology by being in the computer science program was exciting.”

By taking courses outside of STEM, Young discovered new passions, such as the different ways to engage with art through digital media.

After graduating from UCSC, he spent his early career working for an artificial intelligence (AI) firm before pursuing a master’s degree in visual studies at the MIT Media Lab, one of the first academic labs focused on blending technology, media, and design.

“Issues we explored in the Media Lab spanned from ‘How do you use a screen as a communications platform?’ to ‘How do you use a screen to interact with information?’” said Young.

From tech to digital artistry

Because the concept of using technology for creative means was still very new, Young didn’t immediately pursue his artistic ambitions. Instead, he taught communication design at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena for several years and then spent two decades in tech working in the fields of artificial intelligence, consulting, advertising, and global innovation.

Young’s desire to reach different audiences through technology and his curiosity for using computers as tools for creative design eventually inspired him to withdraw from corporate tech to become an independent artist, where he now employs AI tools to create digital artwork.

While Young was working in tech, he grew concerned about how technology, particularly artificial intelligence, was advancing. Many industries—from banking to human resources— increasingly rely on AI to automate decision-making processes. Though this has helped reduce human error and improve efficiency in many sectors, Young noticed that these technologies are plagued with bias that leads to unfair decision-making, often due to a lack of diverse perspectives contributing to the platform’s development.

“I asked myself ‘How can I try to fix that?’ Maybe it’s through beauty and aesthetics that we can get people to think about AI in a different way and develop their intuitions for what the technology is, rather than from a technological standpoint,” he said.

Novel forms of creative expression

Young’s aim to incorporate more diverse perspectives into new and emerging technologies led him to the work he’s doing now: blending artificial intelligence machine learning technology with digital design to produce works of art that explore novel forms of creative expression.

Although Young has a background in coding and programming, he stressed that “anyone can engage in AI to create digital artwork without a full technical understanding.” He hopes his unique perspective will encourage more people from all backgrounds to engage with this kind of technology-driven artwork.

Young’s artistic process begins with small amounts of data. He uploads a dozen or more photos he’s taken from his camera to train the machine. Once the photos are uploaded into the machine, he programs it through unique code to create digital artwork. Importantly, the machine is not developing the art, but rather being manipulated by the artist through both code and uploaded images to create a design.

This process stands in stark contrast to the ways in which AI and machine learning are usually employed. Normally these technologies work with enormous data sets. But by reducing the amount of data he uses, Young is able to highlight the imperfections of AI technology and to use the errors made to further shape his artwork, inviting new perspectives on the art produced.

“There’s a huge amount of creative curation that goes into what you train the machine with and how you manipulate the machine to get the results you want—and then choosing the outputs you think are most interesting,” Young explained.

Young’s work has been recognized widely and displayed around the world, including at the Kate Vass Galerie in Zurich, Switzerland; the Schierke Seinecke Gallery in Frankfurt, Germany; and the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea. More recently, he’s begun using quantum computing, an emerging field that draws on quantum properties to encode information in two states simultaneously, to create digital art.

Reflecting back on his career, Young said, “My work now is, in a sense, a loop backwards. I started off my career doing work in AI, which was at the time just emerging, and now I am doing something that uses a similar application in the artistic world. It’s a lot of fun to be involved in something that’s still very much in the innovation phase.”

Visit David Young’s website to learn more about his artistic approach and to view additional works of art.