This robot’s paintings were featured at the Venice Biennale, but are they act?

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing in front of her, then goes down again, dabbing another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait takes shape. If you didn’t know a robot made it, this portrait could pass for the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da has been touted as the “first robot to paint like an artist,” and an exhibition of her work, called Leaping into the Metaverse, opened at the Venice Biennale.

Ai-Da creates portraits of seated subjects using a robotic hand attached to her lifelike female figure. She can also talk and gives detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and attitude to technology. She even gave a TEDx talk on “The Intersection of Art and AI” in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, the creators of Ai-Da have also experimented with having her own poetry written and performed.

But how should we interpret the output of Ai-Da? Should we regard her paintings and poetry as original or creative? Are these works really art?

[Photo: Stefano Mazzola/Getty Images]

Art is subjective

What discussions about AI and creativity often overlook is the fact that creativity is not an absolute quality that can be objectively defined, measured and reproduced. When we describe an object — a child’s drawing, for example — as creative, we project our own assumptions about culture onto it.

After all, art never stands alone. It always needs someone to give it “art” status. And the criteria for determining whether you think something is art is determined by your individual expectations as well as broader cultural perceptions.

If we extend this way of thinking to AI, it follows that no AI application or robot can be objectively ‘creative’. It is always us (humans) who decide whether what created AI is art.

In our recent research, we propose the concept of the “Lovelace effect” to refer to when and how machines, such as robots and AI, are considered original and creative. The Lovelace Effect — named after 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, often referred to as the first computer programmer — shifts the focus from the technological capabilities of machines to the responses and perceptions of those machines by humans.

The programmer of an AI application or the designer of a robot does not only use technical means to show the public his machine as creative. This is also done through presentation: how, where and why we deal with a technology; how we talk about that technology; and where we feel that technology fits into our personal and cultural context.

In the eye of the beholder

Our reception of Ai-Da has in fact been informed by several cues suggesting her status as a ‘human being’ and ‘artist’. For example, Ai-Da’s robot figure looks a lot like a human — she’s even been called a “she,” with a feminine-sounding name that doesn’t so subtly suggest that Ada Lovelace has influence.

This femininity is further emphasized by the blunt bob that frames her face (although she’s sported some other funky hairstyles in the past), perfectly ironed eyebrows and painted lips. Indeed, Ai-Da looks a lot like the quirky title character of the 2001 film Amélie. This is a woman we’ve seen before, in film or in our everyday lives.

Ai-Da also wears conventionally “artistic” clothing, including overalls, mixed fabric patterns, and eccentric cuts. In these outfits she creates paintings that look as if a human could have made them, which are sometimes framed and exhibited among human works.

We also talk about her as we would talk about a human artist. An article in the Guardian, for example, gives a shout-out to “the world premiere of her solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2022.” If we didn’t know that Ai-Da was a robot, we could easily be led to appreciate her work as we would any other artist.

Some may see robot-produced paintings as coming from creative computers, while others are more skeptical, given that robots act on clear human instructions. In any case, attributions of creativity never depend solely on technical configurations – no computer is objectively creative. Rather, the attributions of computational creativity are largely inspired by reception contexts. In other words, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

As the Lovelace effect shows, certain social cues prompt the public to think about output as art, systems as artists and computers as creative. Like the frames around Ai-Da’s paintings, the frames we use to talk about AI output indicate whether or not what we’re looking at can be called art. But as with any work of art, your appreciation of AI output ultimately depends on your own interpretation.

Leah Henrickson is a lecturer in digital media at the University of Leeds; Simone Natale is an associate professor of media theory and history at the Università di Torino. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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