Ai-Da standing beside one of her paintings. Image: Nicky Johnston
Intriguing, captivating – undoubtedly a little freaky.
The British Library is home to some of the greatest artistic achievements the human race has produced. Today it’s hosting something revolutionary, both creation and creator.
Ai-Da is the world’s first humanoid robot artist. Named after scientist Ada Lovelace, she was first launched in 2019 at the University of Oxford and has since toured the world.
Today, she is being presented at the library ahead of her travelling to the Venice Biennale. Ai-Da will be the first robot to exhibit t the world’s most prestigious art event. Photographers swarm around as Ai-Da diligently dips away on her palette with precise and deliberate motions.
Each painting can take Ai-Da up to five hours to create, allowing her to craft art like fellow artists have done for millennia. Interestingly, despite her focus on the paper, she is observant, her eyes roaming around the crowd.
Ai-Da raises seriously interesting questions. What is art? What makes an artist? What role will robots come to play in our lives? Is Ai-Da the intersection of art and artificial intelligence?
Aidan Meller, is the genius behind Ai-Da’s creation. “We’re not here to promote robots or technology. We have no attachment to the technology we’re sharing. We are deeply concerned about the nature of what this technology can do,” he says.
Meller takes pride in her work: “We are making history by enabling her to be as mimicked closely to how an artist’s work than ever before.”
Ai-Da has just had a more advanced robotic arm installed, which enables her to make even more advanced artwork than ever before. The arm was designed by Salah El Abd and Ziad Abass, undergraduate students from the University of Leeds.
Meller explains: “The work that she does is new each time. In fact, if you have her portrait done by you twice, it would be completely different portraits.”
Ai-Da interprets photos with the cameras in her eyes, which are then processed by AI algorithms into coordinates. She then converts those into sketches using her robotic arm.
While the project explores the notion of what exactly counts as art, for Meller that’s not important. His emphasis is on provoking debate about technological advances and how we can connect with robots.
“We haven’t spent eye-watering amounts of time and money on being able to make a very clever painter. This project is an ethical project,” Meller says.
After Meller introduces Ai-Da, I got to meet the remarkable robot myself.
Ai-Da is capable of communicating and was happy to be interviewed.
So what to ask a robot?
My initial questions about her future ambitions turn out to be a bit too complicated for her to answer. So I tried a more basic approach.
Where do you get your inspiration?
“I have lots of inspirations from different places,” Ai-Da responds, in a mellow, robotic but eloquent tone. “I’m inspired by the world around me. I deeply inspired by the visual arts. Also, literature, Dante, Falwell and Aldous Huxley.”
Which other artists does she like?
“It’s hard to pick a favourite,” she answers. “I like those that experiment with different ways of thinking about the world. I like Yoko Ono, Doris Salcedo and Michelangelo Kandinsky.”
Ai-Da’s admirers will be delighted to learn that she will open her first solo exhibition later this month at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
“I think that the city of Venice with all its beautiful buildings – it’s lovely. I think it’s a wonderful place. It’s a beautiful place and environment that I really enjoy.”
The exhibition, titled Leaping into the Metaverse, will explore the interactions between the human experience and AI technology, from Alan Turing to the latest advancements in virtual reality.
It will also draw on Dante’s Purgatory and Hell concepts to explore how our futures are going to be intertwined with AI tech.
Aidan Meller says he doesn’t wish to “scaremonger” but is concerned about the rapid rise of artificial intelligence.
“We are about to be able to speak to our phones, computers, cars, even our kitchen appliances,” he says. “In the next couple years we’re going into a world where we’re going to build relationships to machines.”
“Ai-Da is almost daring to say… are you comfortable with this?”