Robot artist challenges our definition of art

Ai-Da’s robot art has sold for more than $1 million. What will this mean for human artists?

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Artists have a history of subverting expectations and mainstream culture, but the world’s first humanoid robot artist is taking it to a new level. So far, “she” has sold over a million British pounds worth of art.

Meet Ai-Da, an AI robot that can create artistic pieces from sight. Named after mathematician and computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da wasn’t designed just to generate interesting pictures. She’s also programmed to ask thought-provoking questions.

Most of the masterpieces that gained a lasting place in history were once a force of disruption in the conversation around art, and Ai-Da is doing just that. She’s upending the art world and creating plenty of controversy, as she compels people everywhere to ask the question: “Is robot art actually art?” 

The Birth of a Robot Artist

Aidan Meller, Ai-Da’s creator, is a British inventor and gallery owner. The inspiration for Ai-Da began while Meller was pondering the work of Picasso, Matisse, and Turner and Constable, and he had a disturbing thought. In his words, it was that, “actually, technically some of these works weren’t that good.”

This thought led Meller to become obsessed with the question of why only about 1% of artists’ works become world-famous and revered, while the other 99% do not. After months of consideration, Meller realized success had little to do with the artist or artworks themselves and more to do with the cultural context in which they were created.

Today, the role and rise of AI permeates our cultural climate, so Meller decided to team up with Lucy Seal, Ai-Da’s curator and researcher, and Oxford University to start a project focused on robotic art. The project compels us to consider not just how AI stands to affect the world of art, but also the world at large. 

Ai-Da’s Artistic Process

As a whole, Ai-Da’s process for creating art isn’t very different from a human artist’s process. First, she observes and then she creates. She was also designed to generate pieces that are entirely unique.

Unlike other robot artists that have so far only been able to imitate or combine elements of existing art, Meller and Seal actually programmed creativity into Ai-Da. They wanted her works to be new, surprising, and of value. Ai-Da is the first robot artist to achieve this goal.

Ai-Da uses cameras embedded in her eyeballs to see. She can view live subjects, such as humans or animals, still life subjects, and even other pieces of art. Ai-Da can also use uploaded images as a reference. When drawing, the intricate motions of her expressive thespian arms aid her, while complex algorithms produce the coordinates for her to draw.

Although the plan is for Ai-Da to eventually be able to sculpt and paint robot art, she doesn’t currently have features that allow her to wield a paintbrush or hands that can interact with ceramics.

This doesn’t mean she can’t design paintings or three-dimensional artwork. Currently, her paintings are printed onto a canvas and then painted over by a human assistant. Her sculptures, like one of an intricate, futuristic-looking bee in flight, are also based on her drawings. 

How Will Robot Art Affect Starving Artists?

Ai-Da’s first art exhibition wrapped up in the summer of 2019 where she showcased 20 paintings, eight drawings, four sculptures, and two video works. The robot art was sold for a total of more than one million British pounds.

Ai-Da’s quick success in the art world begs us to consider how a robot artist could affect human artists. In a world where many artists already struggle to sell their work and get paid fairly for their talents, will AI have a negative effect on their ability to make a living?

Meller is optimistic. He believes robot art will create new kinds of human artists and even jobs for them. Initially neither photographs or videos were considered real art, but eventually they earned their own space in galleries and respect from critics. They also created a world of photographers, cinematographers, directors, editors, and new kinds of galleries.

Meller hopes AI will create new opportunities for artists in the same way the emergence of photography and cinematography created entire industries. “Mirroring our fears and our insides and thoughts is a very good way to contemplate,” says Meller, “and that’s why we think this voice of Ai-Da is so important because she’s hopefully going to instill more debate and more consideration.”

Our world is moving faster and faster toward the challenging ideas around artificial intelligence becoming reality. Ai-Da might just be the next big idea in a long history of technological advances by posing deep questions and starting necessary conversations.

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