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Computer learns to make oriental ink paintings 

Comparison of photo and sumi-e painting.
A computer has learned to automatically convert real photos (left) into an oriental ink style called Sumi-e.Tokyo Institute of Technology via arXiv.org

A computer has mastered Sumi-e, a style of oriental ink painting that conveys a scene with just a few, delicate brush strokes.

The accomplishment takes automated image manipulation to a new frontier, according to MIT’s Technology Review, and may open the door for a new photo app to compete with the likes of Instagram.

The challenge Ning Xie and colleagues at the Tokyo Institute of Technology faced was to get a computer to generate natural-looking brush strokes in a repeatable manner.

Previously, researchers have tackled the problem using a so-called dynamic programming approach, but doing so was computationally expensive and only produced a stroke for a specific shape. 

That’s a problem if you want to turn a snapshot of a flower vase on the table into a Sumi-e painting with the touch of a button and do it all again moments later with a picture of your child in a sandbox.

So, Xie’s team used a technique called reinforcement learning, whereby the computer was rewarded when it made nice, smooth lines for a variety of strokes but not when it stroked poorly.

In this way, the computer learned a library full of brush strokes and now calls on them at any time to create a Sumi-e painting. 

The only catch is that humans manually draw contours on a photo that the computer then fills in with strokes.

The technique is explained in a paper posted on arXiv.org and to be presented at the International Conference of Machine Learning in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"The results ... we think are of good quality," Xie and colleagues conclude.

 —  Via Technology Review 

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.