Uncanny valley: welcome to the era of “ultra-realistic” robot art

On October 25, 2018, a painting of a fictional man named Edmond de Belamy sold for $432,500 at Christie’s, well above its high estimate of $10,000. “Here is the future,” the auctioneer said as he unveiled the blurry, off-center portrait. Why? Because it had been “painted” by a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) formed on a collection of 15,000 historical portraits from an online art encyclopedia. The project was developed by artist collective Obvious, using code they allegedly stole from the then 19-year-old artist Robbie Barrat.

Even then, art created with artificial intelligence systems was not particularly new. Two years prior, Google began teaching AI to create art through its ongoing research project Magentaand in 2017, scientists had created a program who could create “better” that’s itn creatives at Art Basel. Maybe that’s why Edmond de Belamy didn’t quite kick off the GAN artistic gold rush like it was supposed to. The subsequent auction of another “pioneering” work, Memories of passers-by I, recovered just £40,000. In 2019, even Edmond’s parent The Baroness of Belamy barely scratched by its low estimate at Sotheby’s, sold for $25,000.

At this point, it looked like the robots were far from giving up on their day-to-day work, and the creative industries – often seen as the last frontier in automation – were momentarily safe. Between: Ai-Da. Developed by Oxford gallery director Aidan Meller, Ai-Da was introduced to the world in 2019, as the “first ultra-realistic humanoid artist robot”: a bionic skeleton with cameras for eyes, wrapped in silicone skin and equipped with thousands of individual strands of hair.

From sight, Ai-Da can sketch a portrait of a person sitting across from her, and with a new state-of-the-art arm, can actually paint using a palette and canvas. , as humans have done for centuries. She doesn’t just collect historical reference images to create something new; she observes and is directly inspired by the present. Surely she’s not going to pull a Ex-Machina anytime soon, but footage of the robot looking sideways at her subject as she composes a painting or answers questions using a sophisticated language model, puts her somewhere deep in the strange valley – quite scary so that the Egyptian border guards stopped her suspected of being a spy.

As more than just an artist’s tool, Ai-Da also raises more interesting questions than the buzzing AI art that came before it. For example, if a machine creates art with its own hands, from images captured by its own eyes, can it be called a true artist? Or is this claim based on its programmers and the images it fed? (Meller considers himself merely a “facilitator,” for the record.) Can you really paint a self-portrait if there’s no “me”? And, if robots are really about to get creative, what are the implications for real, flesh-and-blood artists?

For Meller, these questions are essential. Last month, Ai-Da launched her first exhibition in Venice, on the occasion of the Venice Biennale 2022. In five connected spaces of the InParadiso gallery, she presents holographic video art, sculptures, poetry and paintings created on site. So far, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. “People love the show,” Meller told Dazed. “[But] this is in fact not the object of the project. The project is about ethics. And in fact, they are deeply rooted and extremely concerning. A series of self-portraitsentitled stitched eyes, shows the robot with stitches through its eyelids, symbolizing the blindness of technological progress. In a separate video, she walks around with her head upside down, referencing Dante’s uncertain liminal state. Purgatory – an apt analogy for the present, as we struggle to accept a brave new world.

“The reason why we particularly focused on Ai-Da as a personality is that we want to show how easy it is today to develop a character, and yet there is no one there,” Meller adds. This is another part of the ethical experience. “She looks like a human. She paints like a human. She speaks like a human. She is not human. The last work of Ai-Da’s show in Venice – titled Jump into the Metaverse – symbolizes how the move into the metaverse takes this deception even further, as physical bodies are replaced with digital avatars and real people become increasingly indistinguishable from NPCs.

“We predict the metaverse will be a Wild West like the Internet,” adds Meller. “There’s going to be impersonation not just of celebrities, but of your own family members, and you won’t know who you’re talking to.” And that’s not even his or Ai-Da’s biggest concern. “A billion people [are] should arrive on the metaverse within the first year,” it continues. “It’s a billion pieces of data about how we think. George Orwell never went into his wildest fantasies thinking we could get inside our heads. We’re actually going to be able to figure out how to think like people think, and…algorithms will know us better than we know ourselves. We are about to enter a post-human world where algorithms will make the decisions.

If that sounds terrifying (and it undoubtedly is), then the reaction to Meller’s blatantly inhuman robot artist isn’t exactly going to quell your fears: “People go to Ai-Da and respond in a so amazing…and yet they don’t realize that there is no Ai-Da Ai-Da is a constructed personality.

Of course, the humanoid body helps cultivate a sense of empathy – it’s certainly easier to forget that Ai-Da is a machine than an algorithm operating behind closed doors, or in the depths of cyberspace – but it is also linked to a very human tendency to project emotions onto machines. Take Sun Yuan and Peng Yu I can’t help myself (2016) as another example. In 2019, when the three-year-old industrial robotic arm made its own appearance at the Venice Biennale, sweeping blood around a glass display case, the mechanism had slowed considerably. Although she looked like something off a car production line, her “tired” appearance had a powerful effect on human viewers, who mourned her as one of their own. This year, when the work was rediscovered by TikTok, tens of millions of people listened to tribute videos, which soundtracked by Lana Del Rey or Radiohead.

“You just consider Ai-Da a person. You begin to let your guard down and relax. There is almost trust. It’s quite moving. –Aidan Meller

Meller traces this “innate” need to engage back to rock art, or pareidolia phenomenon: “There is memages we feel we can relate to… even if we see little eyes in the trees, rocks or sand, we immediately think there is a face. Regarding Ai-Da, he admits that he even finds himself slipping. “What’s really interesting about spending hours with her like me, and a lot of the team, is that you just think of her as a person,” he says. “You start to let your guard down and relax. There is almost trust. It’s quite deep. It is something very moving. »

“We forget that these are things. Ai-Da is one thing, and yet we still want to connect, we start to engage, desperate to talk to her, wanting feedback, wanting reassurance… It doesn’t have to be true to be accepted.

While Ai-Da draws attention to this with her eerie appearance and techno-pessimistic art, people’s belief that they are getting to know her “profoundly changes” their relationship with her output. It’s something Meller knows well, given his experience as a gallery owner: the power of stardom. But what does it mean to have a famous artist who is also a robot? Should young Damien Hirsts and Tracey Emins who will have to compete with algorithms like Ai-Da’s – algorithms that might get to “know us better than ourselves” – be worried, or Ai-Da doesn’t surfing on novelty?

Well, there’s no denying that robotics is going to replace vast swaths of human industry in the years to come, and artificial intelligence has already seeped into just about every creative field in one form or another. But the metaverse will also come with an array of new opportunities, experts suggest, with the potential for massive new industries (and, yes, man-made horrors) beyond our comprehension. As for artists, Meller says, “Those who can embrace the new digital realm to come, I think they’ll do very, very well. In fact, the future of art will be to embrace change rather than resist it.

So far, it’s unclear what this embrace could or should look like. Maybe that will mean working with AI artists like Ai-Da, not as tools like GANs, but as collaborators and creative partners, with the ability to surprise us and imagine new ideas. After all, every artist is a patchwork of diverse inputs and influences – perhaps we have more in common with Ai-Da than we care to admit. On the other hand, maybe we’ll look back on Ai-Da like Edmond de Belamy, like an AI creation that only caught our attention until something new, and more complex, and even more disturbing happens.

What we do know, so far, is that Ai-Da’s “ethical experiment” – which is “extremely expensive”, with all the money it brings in funneled back into the project – is the one of our best hopes for understanding how that future might play out. “We’ve seen a proliferation of AI artists and robots over the past year,” says Meller. “I don’t know what their programs are to have the robot and the AI ​​art, but for us it’s just about trying to reflect where the world is going.”

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