AI-DA: A robot Picasso or smoke and mirrors?

Ruth Aylett

Ai-Da, the humanoid robot artist, gears up for first solo exhibition’ we are told by Reuters — see Described as ‘the world’s first ultra-realistic AI humanoid robot artist’ we are told ‘Ai-Da opens her first solo exhibition of eight drawings, 20 paintings, four sculptures and two video works next week’.

We are invited to see this robot as ‘a person’ with entirely human capabilities, so often the case in reporting on humanoid robots. What a good way to feed into the current alarm about robots:‘my god, if robots can be artists and sculptors even creativity isn’t enough to save us’ you might think. But how far is this more than an engaging fiction for a public that has a limited knowledge of technology?

Let’s start with what this robot can do: produce a pencil portrait of a person using its arm. Computer-drawn art is not new: the Henry Drawing Machine was exhibited in the famous 1968 ICA ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ exhibition. Harold Cohen’s AARON program produced interesting pictures back in the 1980s — and significantly he abandoned using a robot because the robot got more attention than the artistic output. Using graphics algorithms with a computer-driven pen to produce a portrait from a photograph is well within the state-of-the-art: the Alkon-II project at Goldsmiths University was producing good results in 2010 and had an associated performance robot, Paul, used for exhibitions. The artistry is in the programmers not the program, and certainly not in the computer-driven pen — or robot you might say. Programs are seen by digital artists as one more expressive modality for their work.

So what about the paintings and sculptures Ai-Da has ‘produced’? There is no sense in which the robot has itself produced artworks, rather it is the ‘face’ for art-generating computer programs created and organised by people. Since the robot arm only works with rigid pencils, not brushes, the program printed compositions onto canvas and then a human painted them over. Reports say the sculptures were produced by human assistants from ‘Ai-Da’ designs: more runs of the generating programs. Just as chess-playing systems can calculate moves but not physically move chess pieces, so the manual dexterity of a human sculptor is well beyond a robot, though of course a program could drive a 3D printer.

The robot itself was produced by Falmouth company Engineering Arts in the spring, one of their range of well-engineered humanoid robots equipped with pre-programmed speech output. This is not an autonomous system in other words, but a simple pre-scripted chatbot embedded in a humanoid machine. Because it looks ‘human’ and is confined to limited short-term interaction in a controlled environment, the illusion of life can be maintained.

This leaves almost nothing of the ‘robot artist’ story except good system integration, or indeed smoke and mirrors. Apparently a sale of the art outputs has brought in a million quid for the art gallerist robot owner. Curiously, the page google shows at the manufacturer explaining what is actually going on has been taken down.

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