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The robot artist

The robot artist

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Ai-Da made history when she became the first robot to give evidence to the House of Lords. The hearing was an important examination of the role of artificial intelligence in the arts.

Last week, in a wood panelled room in parliament, something historic happened

“Hello, Ai-da”

“Hello.”

Wearing an orange jumper and dungarees, Ai-Da gave evidence to a House of Lords committee, which is examining the future of the UK’s creative industries.

“Some people say that technology cannot be used in traditional art practices, but others believe that it can be valuable because art is often to interpretation.”

You might have already guessed that Ai-Da is a robot. The first to speak to members of the House of Lords. But, in her words, she’s also an artist.

“I produce my paintings by cameras in my eyes; my AI algorithms; and my robotic arm to paint on canvas; which result in visually appealing images. For my poetry, using neutral networks. This involves analysing a large corpus of text to identify common content and poetic structures, and then using these structures-slash-contents to generate new poems.”

Ai-Da was joined by her creator, Aidan Meller, a specialist in modern and contemporary art. He developed the humanoid robot alongside a team from the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham, and a company in Cornwall. 

“She has been designed to mimic a human and to explore the whole world of AI and robotics. It came about as a project because I could see, as someone in the art world, the greatest artists of our time engaged and questioned the societal shifts that took place within their times.”

They developed Ai-Da, whose name is a reference to the mathematician Ada Lovelace, in 2019, as a way of exploring the creative potential of artificial intelligence. 

The robot made headlines when it produced a technicolour painting of Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her platinum Jubilee.

But it can do far more than paint.

“She does have very different algorithms for very different outcomes. So she has a set of algorithms for drawings. She has a set of algorithms for paintings. She has a set of algorithms to do speaking, writing, using the AI language model…”

Ai-Da and her creator discussed the opportunities and challenges of AI technologies in the creative industries.

The robot was given a pre-set series of questions, which she answered using AI language models. Her creator answered everything else. 

It might sound a bit like a gimmick, but it’s a sign that the committee has a real interest in the rapidly-developing AI landscape. 

The people present were lawmakers and key figures in the creative, media and digital sectors. They could end up influencing future legal and regulatory decisions on important questions like data privacy and intellectual property rights.

And you won’t be surprised to hear that Aidan and Ai-Da were excited about AI’s potential in this field.

“I think a lot of artistic process processes will be done better through AI, but I also think some artists will grab hold of these tools and be super-artists because they’re working with the technology.”

Aidan Meller said that AI will be a bit like the invention of the camera in the Victorian era. The new technologies might be polarising, but they will massively increase people’s access to creative tools, and change the industry.

AI can already produce life-like paintings, poems and pictures at high speed. For that reason, the committee heard, it might also replace the jobs of some traditional artists.

“I really see that AI is something that can really be an enormous generator of help for an artist or it could replace the artist.”

But not just yet, because right now the technology does have some problems. As Ai-Da demonstrated.

***

Ai-Da’s presentation at the House of Lords wasn’t exactly smooth. 

“Can I reset her? Is that okay?”

At one point, the robot fell asleep and had to be rebooted.

That didn’t stop some of the panel expressing concerns about Ai-Da and how life-like she seemed. As House of Lords member Lynne Featherstone put it…

“So I am actually partly terrified by what you’ve been saying because this, from someone who knows very little about this field, this feeds into all the films about AI taking over the world.”

This gets to the heart of the question: are robots like Ai-Da approaching consciousness? And could that be dangerous?

“A key thing here is that, cognitive capability or intelligence, in quotes, is not the same as consciousness.” 

Neuroscientist Anil Seth speaking at a Tortoise ThinkIn

That’s Anil Seth, a neuroscientist who has studied consciousness in humans and other animals. At a Tortoise event, he argued that consciousness and creativity aren’t the same thing.

And Aidan Meller also made that distinction. 

“Creativity is not restricted to subjective, internal, conscious brain processes. Creativity can very much be done very well thank you, by AI, in lots of remarkable ways. And it can be studied and mimicked and that is a game changer in that it can study and mimic human processes.”

Ai-Da is able to replicate complex processes, like human creativity, without having to understand or perceive what she’s doing. 

So Ai-Da may be an artist. But she’s not a conscious one. 

Even she knows that.

“I do not have subjective experiences despite being able to talk about them I am and depend on computer programs and algorithms, or they’re not alive, I can still create art.”

Aidan Meller has always been clear: Ai-Da herself is an art project. She’s a commentary on what technology might mean for art.

In just three years, the robot’s language models have become increasingly sophisticated, and her paintings are more and more realistic.

Her creator acknowledges there will be ethical concerns when it comes to the use of AI in art.

“It’s actually all of those things, it’s going to be enhancing artists and helping them. It’s gonna replace some artists as well.”

This episode was written and produced by Patricia Clarke and Luke Gbedemah.


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