On October 25, 2018, a painting of a fictional man named Edmond de Belamy sold for $432,500 at Christie’s, vastly exceeding the high estimate of $10,000. “See the future,” declared the auctioneer, revealing the blurry, off-center portrait. Why? Because it was “painted” by a generative adversarial network (GAN) trained on a set of 15,000 historical portraits from an online art encyclopedia. The project was developed by the artist collective Obvious, using code they allegedly stole from the then 19-year-old artist Robbie Barrat†
Even then, art made with artificial intelligence systems wasn’t anything particularly new. Two years earlier, Google started teaching AI to make art through its ongoing research project Magentaand by 2017, scientists made a program that could create “better” art thatn creatives at Art Basel. maybe that’s why Edmond de Belamy wasn’t quite the start of the GAN art gold rush it was supposed to do. The subsequent auction of another “groundbreaking” work, Memories of passers-by I, brought in just £40,000. By 2019, even Edmond’s relative The Baroness of Belamy only just scraped through its low estimate at Sotheby’s, sold for $25,000.
At this point, it seemed that robots were still a long way off from giving up their day-to-day jobs, and the creative industry — often considered the last frontier when it comes to automation — was temporarily safe. Enter: Ai Da. Developed by Oxford-based gallery director Aidan Meller, Ai-Da was introduced to the world in 2019 as the “world’s first ultra-realistic humanoid robot artist’: a bionic skeleton with cameras for eyes, wrapped in silicone skin and provided with thousands of individual strands of hair.
Out of sight, Ai-Da can paint a portrait of a person sitting across from her and, thanks to a new, state-of-the-art arm, actually paint with a palette and canvas, as humans have done for centuries. She doesn’t just throw together historical reference images to create something new; she observes and draws inspiration directly from the present. Admittedly, she’s not going to pull Ex Machina but images of the robot looking sideways at her subject as she composes a painting, or answering questions using a sophisticated language model, place her somewhere deep in the eerie valley – spooky enough that Egyptian border guards arrested her suspected of being a spy.
More than just a resource for artists, Ai-Da also raises more interesting questions than the vibrant AI art that came before her. If a machine makes art with its own hands, from images captured with its own eyes, can we call it a real artist? Or does that claim lie with the programmers and the graphics it gets? (Meller only sees himself as a “facilitator,” for the record.) Can you really paint a self-portrait if there’s no “self”? And if robots are really about to get creative, what are the implications for real flesh-and-blood artists?
For Meller, these questions are the whole point. Last month, Ai-Da launched her first exhibition in Venice, on the occasion of the Venice Biennale in 2022. In five interconnected spaces in the InParadiso gallery, she presents holographic video art, sculptures, poetry and paintings created on site. The reactions so far have been mostly positive. “People love the spectacle,” Meller told Dazed. †[But] that’s not what the project is really about. The project is about ethics. And, in fact, they are deeply entrenched and extremely concerning.” A series of self-portraitstitled eyes sewn shut, shows the robot with stitches through her eyelids, symbolizing the blindness of technological progress. In a separate video, she walks around with her head backwards, alluding to Dante’s precarious liminal condition. Purgatory – an apt analogy for the present as we struggle to come to terms with a brave new world.
“The reason we focused specifically on Ai-Da as a personality is because we want to show how easy it is to develop a persona these days, and yet no one is there,” Meller added. This is another part of the ethical experiment. “She looks like a human. She paints like a person. She speaks like a human. She’s not human.” The latest work in Ai-Da’s show in Venice – titled Jumping in the Metaverse – symbolizes how entering the metaverse will take this deception one step further, as physical bodies are replaced by digital avatars and real people become less and less distinguishable from NPCs.
“We predict that the metaverse will become a Wild West like the Internet,” Meller adds. “Not only will the celebrities be impersonated, but also your own family members, and you will not know who you are talking to.” And that’s not even his, or Ai-Da’s, main concern. “A billion people [are] predicted to get on the metaverse within the first year,” he continues. we have to think how people think, and… the algorithms will know us better than ourselves. We’re about to enter a post-human world where the algorithms will make the decisions.”
If that sounds terrifying (and it undoubtedly is), then the reaction to Meller’s obviously inhumane robot artist isn’t going to really allay your fears: “People go to Ai-Da and react in such an amazing way… and yet they realize not that there is no Ai-Da, Ai-Da is a constructed personality.”
Sure, the humanoid body helps cultivate a sense of empathy — it’s certainly easier to forget that Ai-Da is a machine than an algorithm that works behind closed doors or in the depths of cyberspace — but it’s also connected to a very human tendency to project emotions onto machines. Take Sun Yuan and Peng Yus Can’t help myself (2016) as another example. In 2019, when the three-year-old industrial robotic arm made its appearance at the Venice Biennale and swept blood around a glass case, the mechanism had slowed down considerably. Despite looking like something out of a car production line, the “tired” look had a powerful effect on the human viewers, who mourned it as one of their own. This year, when the artwork was rediscovered by TikTok, tens of millions of people tuned in to tribute videos, with a soundtrack from Lana Del Rey or Radiohead.
“You really just see Ai-Da as a person. You begin to lose your guard and begin to relax. There is almost confidence. It’s quite an emotional thing” – Aidan Meller
Meller traces this “innate” need to go all the way back to cave art, or the… pareidolia phenomenon: “There is imagicians we can identify with… even when we see little eyes in the trees, or the rocks, or the sand, we immediately think there is a face.’ As for Ai-Da, he admits that he even finds himself slipping. “What’s really interesting is spending hours with her, like me and many of the team, you just see her as a person,” he says. “You start to lose your guard and start to relax. There is almost confidence. It’s quite in-depth. It’s quite an emotional thing.”
‘We forget that they are things. Ai-Da is one thing, and yet we still want to connect, we start to engage, desperate to talk to her, want feedback, want reassurance… It doesn’t have to be true to be accepted.”
While Ai-Da draws attention to this with her creepy looks and techno-pessimistic art, people’s belief that they get to know her also changes their relationship to her output. This is something Meller is all too familiar with, given his background as a gallery owner: the power of celebrities. 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 could get to know us better than ourselves—be concerned, or is Ai-Da just running out on novelty?
Well, there’s no denying that robotics will replace large swaths of human industry in the coming years, and artificial intelligence has already seeped into just about every creative field in one way or another. But the metaverse will also present a range of new opportunities, experts suggest:, with the potential for huge new industries (and, yes, man-made horrors) beyond our comprehension. Speaking of artists, Meller says, “Those who can embrace the new digital realm that’s coming, I think they’re going to do very, very well. In fact, the future of art will embrace change rather than resist it.”
So far, it’s unclear what this embrace could or should look like. Maybe it’s about 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 come up with new ideas. After all, each artist is a patchwork of different inputs and influences – perhaps we have more in common with Ai-Da than we’d like to admit. On the other hand, we may look back at Ai-Da like Edmond de Belamy, as an AI creation that only held our attention until something new, more complex, and even more disturbing hit the market.
What we do know for now is that Ai-Da’s “ethical experiment” — which is “excessively expensive,” with all the money it earns being reabsorbed back into the project — is one of our best hopes for understanding how this future could play. “We’ve seen a proliferation of AI artists and AI robots in the past year,” Meller says. “I don’t know what their agenda is for having robotics and AI art, but for us it’s just really trying to mirror back where the world is going.”