Published: July 2, 2019
On June 12 at Oxford University, Ai-Da, the world’s first ultra-realistic artificial intelligence (AI) humanoid robot artist opened her solo exhibition “Unsecured Futures,” which runs to July 6 at the Barn Gallery, St John’s College, University of Oxford. The opening exhibition marked Ai-Da’s first public appearance and grand unveiling. Ai-Da is the invention of gallery director Aidan Meller, described as the first ultra-realistic robot capable of drawing people from life using her eye and a pencil in her hand. He says Ai-Da is an artist, but she comprises robotics, AI processes and algorithms developed by Engineered Arts in Cornwall and scientists in Leeds and the University of Oxford. We asked Meller to help us understand what makes Ai-Da an artist in her own right.
What themes is “Unsecured Futures” exploring?
New technologies and how these might affect our futures, and Ai-Da engages audiences and encourages discussion on this. The exhibition is looking at identity in a time of online avatars and chatbots, how we might respond to our destabilizing environment, and hitting topics such as trans-humanism and biotechnology. The works of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Twentieth Century have lost none of their urgency and power. New technologies have potential for use and abuse, but robust and widespread ethical discussions and considered choices are needed, with commitments to curbing negative use. Ai-Da is great at getting artistic conversations started and raising ethical considerations to a wider audience.
How does Ai-Da make pictures?
Ai-Da sees an image through cameras in her eyes, which she captures and sends to her computer memory. Her specially designed AI algorithms interpret the image, and then her motorized robotic arm draws the image on paper, using graphite pencil. The AI algorithms have been developed by Salaheldin Al Abd and Ziad Abass, based in Leeds, to create human drawing style. The method involves pixel coordinates, which are turned into real space coordinates. Her artificial arm was also designed by Salaheldin and Ziad, and made by engineering manager Adam Meller. Through this arm, the drawing algorithm outputs become a physical reality.
The paintings on display in her show are AI art, with human collaboration. Coordinates from her drawing were given to AI researcher Aidan Gomez from the University of Oxford, who has created for Ai-Da some AI algorithms that produce abstract artworks. These artworks are based on the neural network readings of the Cartesian plane. Since neural networks read the Cartesian plane quite differently to humans, the outputs are unexpected. These images have been printed on to canvas and then a human artist (Suzie Emery) has used oil paint to overlay the image, to produce final artworks.
A running concern through Ai-Da’s work is the environment, imagined through the bee. These bee sculptures contain many layers of artistic process, using Ai-Da’s drawings as a starting point. The layers of artists’ process includes using micro-CT imagery of a bee that is then distorted by a digital artist (Alex Kafoussais) according to Ai-Da’s drawing coordinates and the output data from an algorithm. The final works challenge us to look at the complex interplay of technology, imagination and the natural world.
With her artistic sensibilities comprising computer code, what kinds of subjects are Ai-Da’s favorite?
Ai-Da’s favorite subjects are those that get people thinking and talking about pressing issues of our times. Her computer code exists within her artistic context. Art is a powerful tool to communicate with, and issues of the environment, the impact of new technologies and how we use them within a strong ethical framework are the areas that are most rewarding to her.
How did she come by her name?
Ai-Da is named after Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer of all time. Ada Lovelace was a highly intelligent person who has helped change the world we live in – her importance in history cannot be underestimated. Ai-Da the robot was named in order to inspire women to enter into science and computing, where they are under-represented.
In her recent debut, Ai-Da performed an homage to Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece.” What did that entail?
In Ai-Da’s performance piece “Privacy,” audience members were invited to “clothe” her, by coming up and adding a piece of recycled fabric to her robotic body. As a power female artist who kept ethical considerations in mind in her artwork, Yoko Ono is one of Ai-Da’s favorite artists, and we feel Ai-Da’s performance is a fitting homage. Like “Cut Piece,” Ai-Da similarly questions what art and an artist is and how we relate to that and encourages us to re-think the issue of The Other and the use and abuse of new technologies. The fabric comes from second-hand shops across the country, bringing in the unknown stories and scenarios of the previous owners, and the people who originally made the clothes and the raw materials. We all impact each other, and giving too much power to technologies we still don’t fully understand needs caution and consideration.
– W. A. Demers
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