Ai-Da: Robot or Rembrandt

Ai-Da is the world's very first robot artist. She can draw, paint, make 3D designs, sculpt… and also discuss the impact of new technologies. MASTERS spoke with gallery director Aidan Meller, the spiritual creator of Ai-Da, which is named after Ada Lovelace, the first ever computer programmer. “Ai-Da is more than a robot, it is an ethical art project that explores the issues that affect us today.”

Text: Bart-Jan Brouwer

What motivated you to start making a robot?

“To try to understand the changing world we live in now. The fact that it became a robot with an artistic talent is because I am an art expert and have been running a gallery for twenty years. The greatest artists have always questioned the times in which they lived. Where is it going? They did not become super famous because they did great work in their ivory towers, but because with their art they expressed what was going on in society under the skin. We currently live in a time where technology has a major impact on all aspects of life on earth. That's why I started looking into AI with the help of the Machine Learning department at the University of Oxford. The more I read about it, the more I realized that people are concerned about this technology, the way it can manipulate. One day my son was building something with LEGO. “Look dad, I made a robot!” he shouted proudly. It was an absolute flash of a moment. My head was racing. As I looked at this little robot, with all these thoughts in mind, I wondered: is it possible to create a robot that creates works of art that comment on and critique the rise of AI and technology in today's society? ? When I shared that idea with others, I was told: crazy idea, impossible. But was it such a crazy idea? I felt challenged and started working on it: building a robot that could create art. And Ai-Da is more than a robot, it is an ethical art project that explores the issues that affect us today.”

What were the biggest challenges in that process?

“I had to hire a robot company, hire a large number of AI programmers, the costs skyrocketed… There were many challenges. But the most important thing was to first understand what creativity is. The word is used all the time, but there are many definitions. For example, in ancient Greece, creativity was a divine gift from the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Those who were touched could perform remarkable feats – creativity as divine madness. A more contemporary definition, on which we could build, is that of cognitive scientist Margaret A. Boden: something that is new, surprising and valuable. She states that creativity is the ability to think of things that were not possible before in history because of the applicable rules of the game. We are about to enter a new era, with new rules: posthumanism. Technological and scientific progress has become so advanced that it is no longer possible to follow and understand it for contemporary people. It's already happening. Just look at the navigation in cars: we trust it blindly. This is about to happen in every area of ​​technology. We are coming to a point where technology is better than humanity, where we are guided by algorithms and machines. Ai-Da is at the beginning of this development. That raises many questions: who or what is Ai-Da? Her existence is somehow 'wrong' and we are aware of that: she disrupts. We are not here to promote robots, but to ask questions.”

Why did Ai-Da take on a human appearance?

“Because people relate to people. That lowers the barrier to connection. And we chose feminine looks because women are still underrepresented in art, and certainly in technology.”

What surprised you most about Ai-Da?

“The biggest surprise of the entire project is realizing how robotic humans are. Only since I started working with Ai-Da's algorithms did I realize that they largely correspond to our own algorithms. Humans are very predictable. By creating a robot, I have come to understand people better.”

You trained her. Does that make Ai-Da an extension of you?

“I don't paint, I don't tell her what to make… Yes, I put her together. But no, I am in no way involved with the art she makes. She does this with the help of cameras in her eyes, AI algorithms and a robot arm. The art she makes could also have been made by people, the big difference is that she has no consciousness.”

Even though she's a machine, maybe you still see some character in Ai-Da?

“Ai-Da's persona is super interesting. How can we understand it? We did a show at the Design Museum in 2021 where Ai-Da made a self-portrait using a mirror. But how to make a self-portrait if there is no self? What does that mean for identity in the digital age? Which brings us back to the question: who or what is Ai-Da? You can answer: the person behind the creation, the programmer, the program itself… But none of those answers are right. What is the correct answer? That's a tough one. Ai-Da foreshadows the question we will one day have to ask ourselves: who are we?”

Can works of art produced by machines be called 'art'?

“We consider her work to be contemporary art because it provokes a discussion about our society and future, which is an important role of contemporary art. Ai-Da raises questions about the nature of creativity and art, the nature of AI, the data that powers algorithms and the extent to which that data is biased. She forces us to think about the interface between people and machines. She also gets involved in the debate herself and can be quite controversial. People love her or hate her. No one says 'yeah, she's okay', no one sits in the middle. Before ChatGPT was introduced, people thought it was pure magic, but now they understand that machines can talk.”

Are people afraid of her too?

"Very scared… Mrs. Terminator! That's how some people look at her. This is the beginning of the end, you hear people say. Wherever we go, we must shield her. In the beginning we allowed people to contact Ai-Da, but that is no longer possible. They want to touch her, feel if she is real, see how she reacts... How afraid people can be of her became clear when I went with her to Egypt to exhibit a large statue next to the pyramids. When we arrived at the airport, Ai-Da was detained on suspicion of espionage – despite being invited by the government. Customs was probably alarmed by the cameras in her eyes. She was held captive for ten days. We had to call in the British ambassador to get her released. It was very scary. "

Ai-Da gave a speech in the House of Lords in 2022 about the impact of AI on the creative industries. How does a robot prepare for this?

“She also has a powerful AI language model that allows her to converse with people. Because we knew the speech would be seen by millions of people, we asked some questions in advance as a kind of training. It was of course exceptional: a robot that speaks in the House of Lords! That had never happened before. Last July, she also gave a speech at the United Nations 'AI for Good Global Summit' in Switzerland, in front of professors, thinkers such as Yuval Noah Harari and delegates from Microsoft, Amazon and the world's leading robotics companies, among others. businesses. Other robots also attended the summit, including a nursing assistant robot, a food delivery robot, a recycling robot, a rock star robot, a Raclette-making robot, a therapeutic robot… It was very interesting to meet the 'family of Ai-Da'. From the outside they look broadly the same, but their capabilities are very different. I am proud that with Ai-Da we have the most creative robot in the world.”


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