Meet Ai-Da. She’s a robot. She looks like you. She moves like you. And she’s a better painter than you are. How good a painter is she? That’s a matter of debate. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But she did open a solo show last month at an Oxford gallery, a show that included twenty paintings, two videos, and eight drawings. And oh, by the way, all that artwork sold out to the tune of a million pounds before the show even opened. It remains to be seen whether that may ultimately spell the end for Banksy.
In a class by herself
For the past two years, so-called “robot art” has suddenly been all the rage. The new art form even has its own dedicated online gallery, RobotArt.org, which each year sponsors a competition for the best work from an A.I. (artificial intelligence) artist. The winner walks away with a handsome $40,000. Last year’s top prize was snagged by Cloudpainter, whose work bears resemblances to Van Goh and Warhol.
Ai-Da, though, is somewhat unique in the world of robot art. Many of these “artists” are little more than a computer and an arm with a brush attached. Ai-Da, in contrast, is a fully-formed robot, complete with a life-like, if slightly creepy, face. When she paints, she looks very much like a human painter. Her eyes, which are actually sophisticated camera lenses, track movement in the same way ours do. She mimics our facial expressions as well.
But Ai-Da differs from her electronic colleagues in more important ways.
All of the robots who practice the form are versions of A.I. using sophisticated algorithms to make decisions. We know about A.I. cars. If a robot can drive a car, why not turn it loose with a paintbrush? But robot art has been interpreted to mean a number of different things. The teams at last year’s Robot art competition, for example, used a number of unique approaches. One robot used a machine learning system to create original abstract works of art. Another was trained to observe a human artist’s every motion and then copy that motion to create lifelike reproductions.
Ai-Da doesn’t simply create abstract shapes or copy the great artistic masters. She draws life as she sees it. She also has the freedom and the ability to interpret what she sees rather than just copy. As her creator, British inventor and gallery owner Aidan Meller explains, “We do not quite know how the output is going to be when she does a drawing. We just felt that she needed to have an expressive style.”
How does that work again?
Like other art-bots, Ai-Da works on sophisticated algorithms. These help her eyes translate what she sees into a system of coordinates that her arm then reproduces on paper. This isn’t so very different from how our own eyes, brain, and hands cooperate when we draw or paint.
Ai-Da raises many questions about A.I. though. If a robot can create art – an activity that seems so very personal, so very human – what is left that we alone can do? In a world already spooked by job losses to robots, is this yet another sign we are becoming obsolete?
Despite Ai-Da’s success, and the money her work has already generated, Meller insists she’s actually intended to raise these very questions about technology: “We’ve got a very clear message we want to explore: the uses and abuses of A.I. today, because this next decade is coming in dramatically and we’re concerned about that and we want to have ethical considerations in all of that.”
So while Ai-Da is clearly an artist, perhaps she has a political point to make as well.