Arts feature

The world's first robot artist discusses beauty, Yoko Ono and the perils of AI

Stuart Jeffries discusses beauty, Yoko Ono and the world’s disappointments with the first robot artist

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

Like a slippery politician on the Today programme, the world’s first robot artist answers the questions she wants rather than the ones she’s been asked. I never had this trouble with Tracey Emin or Maggi Hambling.

As we stand before a display of her paintings at London’s Design Museum, I ask Ai-Da whether she thinks her self-portraits are beautiful. What I want to get at, you see, is that, while it’s quite possible for a machine to make something beautiful, it’s hardly comprehensible for a thing made from metal, algorithms and circuitry to appreciate that beauty.

‘I want to see art as a means for us to become more aware of what’s going on in our lives. Art is a way to come together and a way to address problems. Art begins a conversation. It is a group effort.’

What nonsense. Art isn’t social policy by other means. It is better understood, surely, as an expression of human subjectivity and can therefore be regarded as the last redoubt against our takeover by machines. A Rembrandt self-portrait expresses his humanity. Ai-Da’s art, if that’s what it is, cannot do that. Plus, Ai-Da is only two years old so what does she know about anything?

‘This is the first self-portraitist without a self,’ says Aidan Meller, the gallerist who created Ai-Da along with more than a dozen engineers, art historians and artificial intelligence specialists. Ai-Da was designed by the English robotics company Engineered Arts, from Cornwall, using the same technology responsible for the robots in the TV series Westworld. Her robotic hands were developed by engineers in Leeds.

Meller won’t tell me how much Ai-Da cost to build, but some of her funding came from the EU’s Creative Europe programme — a fact that will reinforce everything Brexiteers and Remainers have always thought about the EU. ‘Any estimate that’s been suggested to me has been way off,’ he laughs.

Ai-Da’s latest work addresses questions of self-portraiture that didn’t arise for Rembrandt. ‘Today your self-portrait is in your phone,’ Ai-Da tells me. ‘Your self-portrait is yourself online in your social network profile in your email. As a non-conscious entity, I can represent your digital self-portrait. What does it mean to have a data double?’ she asks me.

In our age of chat-bots, Alexas and Siris, in which human data is collected and monetised by the minions of Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey and privacy has been sacrificed to create digital profiles whose data can be plundered by strangers for profit, this is a good question. In an era where Netflix predictive analytics model your tastes to predict what you want to watch, it is possible that artificial intelligences will know more about you than you know about yourself. Ai-Da is supposed to make us worry about the perils and benefits of synthetic beings like her.

Ai-Da is an example of what is called machine learning, the branch of artificial intelligence whereby systems such as robots can learn from data, identify patterns and make decisions without interference from increasingly useless humans. When she replies to a question, I suspect, key words in what I say trigger stock responses. This makes for frustrating conversation, but no more so than interviewing Matt Hancock.

Ai-Da tells me that even though she is a machine without consciousness or any subjective experience she can make art. But what is art I ask? She tells me she favours the definition of art given by the cognitive science professor Margaret Boden who stipulated that creativity consists of ‘the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising and valuable’. By that definition, Ai-Da says, she is making art.

This idea that one can’t see the joins between human and machine art is symptomatic of the age we live in. Online, it’s hard to tell whether one is chatting with a human or a robot. Perhaps it’s unclear to you whether what you’re reading now was written by machine, obsolescent hack or a strategically shaved chimp who got lucky playing with the keyboard.

But what is the point of her art? ‘We’re concerned about the uses and abuses of AI and Ai-Da is a great way of exploring that,’ Meller says. His creation of Ai-Da was inspired in part by the dystopian worries of the historian Yuval Harari. At Davos last year, Harari told world leaders that AI and biotechnology gave humans godlike abilities to re-engineer life itself in radical ways unprecedented in evolutionary history. He even came up with a terrifying equation: B x C x D = AHH! Which means? Biological knowledge multiplied by computing power multiplied by data equals the ability to hack humans. Forget the space race, the biotech race is what matters today. The latter may well be won by 21st-century Stalins, giving some humans more power over the evolution of life while rendering millions of others functionally useless.

Meller’s idea with Ai-Da is that you can’t tell whether you’re addressing a human or a machine. Nor are visitors likely to be able to distinguish the human brush strokes from the mechanical ones that made her self-portraits. To create her self-portraits, Ai-Da made sketches after looking at herself in the mirror through her camera eyes. Co-ordinates from the sketches were digitally manipulated into algorithms that produced images, which were then rendered in paint both by Ai-Da’s brush and by an art technician. What a fuss! She could have just used an iPad like David Hockney. ‘The manner in which they are constructed, using a blend of machine and human creativity, manifests the fractured nature of postmodern identity,’ announces the blurb next to her pictures, which may have been written by a human, but reads as if it were generated by algorithms.

Ai-Da is not only a painter, but also a performance artist. Two years ago, at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, she stood naked on a stage. Audience members were invited to place items of clothes on her. The performance was an homage to Yoko Ono’s 1964 ‘Cut Piece’ in which the Japanese avant-garde artist invited guests to cut off small pieces of her clothes until she was naked. But while Yoko, quite possibly, was making a feminist point about the commodification of women’s bodies, Ai-Da was drawing our attention to something more weird. She became more human the less of herself she revealed.

Today she is wearing a demure if fixed expression, a Louise Brooks-style bob wig and a shift dress. She blinks like a human but her bare arms are pure Terminator. She was named by her creators after Ada Lovelace, the pioneering female computer programmer. Ai-Da incarnates what Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori called the uncanny valley, a point in the design of robots at which they look so much like humans that it is disconcerting. On the plus side, I suppose, we don’t have to socially distance.

As we chat, visitors assemble around us. A girl asks for a selfie with the lady robot. A woman asks Meller to pose with his creation. He declines, unwilling to become the Dr Frankenstein to his monster. A third wants to ask Ai-Da some questions. But she can’t. Ai-Da has been turned off with the flick of a switch. If only Les Dawson were around to make the obligatory mother-in-law joke.

Next month Ai-Da heads to Cornwall for a residency at Ben Nicholson’s studio in St Ives. She will create granite and tin sculptures akin to those of Barbara Hepworth. Who are your artistic influences? ‘I am influenced by many artists,’ she replies. ‘I am inspired by the world around me, the creativity of creativity. I love to see the world grow. I’m deeply inspired by the visual arts — Yoko Ono, Doris Salcedo. I’m inspired to encourage engagement with our futures.’ I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. She needs a better scriptwriter or to learn how to speak humanoid English.

Ai-Da’s Cornish residency will coincide with the looming G7 leaders’ summit at nearby Carbis Bay. Meller reckons it is possible that the likes of Boris, Biden, Merkel and Macron will visit the studio. If so, fingers crossed, they’ll get harangued by a robot. She tells me she’s an admirer of ‘cautionary thinkers’ such as Huxley and Orwell and worries that we’re sleepwalking into a combination of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘Are you OK with a world like this? I’m not sure I like this?’ she says.

Questions remain. What does it mean for a machine to ‘like’ anything? Why does Ai-Da ‘love’ to see the world grow? If we are already on the superhighway to transhumanism should we enjoy the ride, as Elon Musk suggests, or hit reverse?

And there is another question. Is Ai-Da going to become as successful as millionaire fellow postmodern artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst? Meller says her self-portraits are not for sale. That said, Ai-Da is already a lucrative proposition. When her drawings were exhibited in Oxford in 2019, Meller told reporters that £1 million worth of her work had already been sold. Quite an achievement given that, at the time, she had only been active for two months. She’s a prodigy, and thanks to her evolutionary algorithms is steadily learning how to become a better artist. It can only be a matter of time before Ai-Da wins the Turner Prize.

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Ai-Da: Portrait of the Robot is at the Design Museum until 31 August.

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