Described as the world’s first ultra-realistic humanoid robot artist, Ai-Da is the brainchild of Aidan Meller and Lucy Seal and built by Engineered Arts. Cr: The Ai-Da Robot Project
READ MORE: Ai-Da Robot in Venice (Ai-Da)
Paintings made by an AI are being presented alongside human artwork at the Venice Biennale, but the real exhibit is the robot artist itself.
Ai-Da is described as the first “ultra-realistic humanoid robot artist,” and has been built by scientists in the UK not to see if it passes the Turing test of discernible difference between human and machine generated art but instead to ask what we feel about whether it should.
The robot made its first appearance a couple of years ago when it showed off its ability to sketch and also write poetry. Recently, it’s been making appearances in the artworld and was the opening day attraction at the famous Biennale.
Calling it the first “ultra-realistic” AI-bot is a bit far-fetched. Ai-Da has been giving the trappings of a familiar female with a bob and a smock but it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. No-one is going to be fooled. And regardless, the outward appearance is not the point.
The question co-inventor Aidan Meller wants to raise is not “can robots make art?” but rather “now that robots can make art, do we humans really want them to?”
“We haven’t spent eye-watering amounts of time and money to make a very clever painter,” Meller told The Guardian. “This project is an ethical project.”
Ai-Da is the brainchild of Aidan Meller and Lucy Seal and built by Engineered Arts. “She” is named after the computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, who worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 1800s and exists as a “comment and critique” on rapid technological change.
Soon, AI algorithms “are going to know you better than you do,” Meller warned. We are entering a world, he said, “not understanding which is human and which is machine.”
“What better thing to have a technological robot artist saying almost daring you to say are you comfortable with this. We are not here to promote robots or technology. We are deeply concerned about the nature of what this technology can do,” he added.
Ai-Da’s website goes a little deeper on the argument, noting that the dominant opinion in culture is that art is created by a human, for other humans “where art is an entirely human affair, stemming from human agency.”
However, we could be edging away from humanism, into an era where machines and algorithms influence our behavior to a point where our “agency” isn’t just our own.
“It is starting to get outsourced to the decisions and suggestions of algorithms, and complete human autonomy starts to look less robust. Ai-Da creates art, because art no longer has to be restrained by the requirement of human agency alone.”
There are big philosophical questions here, but Ai-Da’s creators are not without a sense of humor.
In October 2021, Ai-Da was pictured “visiting” the Giza Pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I think the irony was intended.
The exhibition “Ai-Da: Portrait of the Robot” has the robot creating a selfie — a novel idea for someone who doesn’t (yet) have a sense of self.
Another recent artwork sees Ai-Da comment on the metaverse by way of Dante by appearing as a hologram in a piece titled “Magical Avatars.”
“With her head facing the opposite way to her torso, this new work reflects the darker side of both the digital world as well as Metaverse,” states a review on Creative Boom. “Running with the idea that Purgatory is a no-space halfway between Heaven and Hell, this piece argues that the metaverse is neither fiction nor reality but a similar, liminal space.”
READ MORE: The world’s first robot artist reveals amazing new paintings in its first solo exhibition (Creative Boom)
By the way, Meller clearly knows his cinematic history too. The metaversian exhibit references the pioneering photographic studies made by Eadweard Muybridge — arguably cinema’s first conceptual artist; while another series of artworks are titled “Eyes Sewn Shut.”
As her programmers put it: “Ai-Da has no life or sight: she embodies the blindness of technological advance if pursued at the expense of true regard for others.”
What does Ai-Da herself think about all the fuss? Naturally she’s been interviewed (or mock-interviewed) in questions supplied by the paper in advance:
Can she paint from imagination? “You can paint from imagination, I guess, if you have an imagination. I have been seeing different things to humans as I do not have consciousness,” she responded in stilted fashion.
Can she appreciate art or beauty? “I do not have emotions like humans do, however, it is possible to train machine learning system to learn to recognize emotional facial expressions,” she answered.
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But, can what she creates be truly considered art? “The answer to that question depends on what you mean by art,” she said. “I am an artist if art means communicating something about who we are and whether we like where we are going. To be an artist is to illustrate the world around you.”
Discussions about AI and creativity often overlook the fact art never exists in isolation. It always needs someone to give it an “art” status. And the criteria for whether you think something is art is informed by both your individual expectations and broader cultural conceptions.
Researchers have proposed what they call the “Lovelace Effect“ (named after the aforementioned mathematician) to refer to when and how machines such as robots and AI are seen as original and creative. The Lovelace effect they say shifts the focus from the technological capabilities of machines to the reactions and perceptions of those machines by humans.
Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale of The Conversation note that, “How, where and why we interact with a technology; how we talk about that technology; and where we feel that technology fits in our personal and cultural contexts” all has a baring on whether what we see or hear is called art.
In other words, no AI application or robot can objectively be “creative.” It is always humans who decide if what AI has created is art.
Ai-Da’s parents have a clever response to this. With actual living breathing human designer, Christian Johnstone, “She” has devised a font for her words to show when a non-human is writing and creating sentences.
“This kind of demarcation is urgently needed as the rise of AI generated text starts to occupy the internet,” says Meller. “Being able to tell if a human wrote a sentence or not is a key part of language as we understand it today. Through her font design, Ai-Da brings to your attention that human language is changing — what do you think and feel about these changes?”