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Future

Robot Artists And Us: Who Decides The Aesthetics Of AI?

Ai-Da is touted as the first bonafide robot artist. But should we consider her paintings and poetry original or creative? Is this even art at all?

Photo of Ai-Da sitting behind a desk and holding a paint brush

Ai-Da at work

Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, and then back down as she dabs another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait is taking shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass as the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da is 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 produces portraits of sitting subjects using a robotic hand attached to her lifelike feminine figure. She’s also able to talk, giving detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and attitudes towards technology. She even gave a TEDx talk about “The Intersection of Art and AI” (artificial intelligence) in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, Ai-Da’s creators have also been experimenting with having her write and perform her own poetry.

But how are we to interpret Ai-Da’s output? Should we consider her paintings and poetry original or creative? Are these works actually art?

Subjectivity is truth

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

It is always us – humans – who decide if what AI has created is art.

Indeed, art never exists in isolation. It always needs someone to give it “art” status. And the criteria for whether you think something is art is informed by both your individual expectations and broader cultural conceptions.

If we extend this line of thinking to AI, it follows that no AI application or robot can objectively be “creative”. It is always us – humans – who decide if what AI has created 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 seen as original and creative. The Lovelace effect – named after the 19th century mathematician often called the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace – shifts the focus from the technological capabilities of machines to the reactions and perceptions of those machines by humans.

The programmer of an AI application or the designer of a robot does not just use technical means to make the public see their machine as creative. This also happens through presentation: how, where and why we interact with a technology; how we talk about that technology; and where we feel that technology fits in our personal and cultural contexts.

\u200bPhoto of Ai-Da standing next to her self-portrait

Ai-Da standing next to her self-portrait in exhibition "Ai-Da: Portrait of the Robot."

aidarobot/ Instagram

Eye of the beholder

Our reception of Ai-Da is, in fact, informed by various cues that suggest her “human” and “artist” status. For example, Ai-Da’s robotic figure looks much like a human – she’s even called a “she”, with a feminine-sounding name that not-so-subtly suggests an Ada Lovelace influence.

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

Ai-Da also wears conventionally “artsy” clothing, including overalls, mixed fabric patterns and eccentric cuts. In these outfits, she produces paintings that look like a human could have made them, and which are sometimes framed and displayed among human work.

Ai-Da produces paintings that look like a human could have made them.

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

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

As the Lovelace effect shows, through particular social cues, audiences are prompted to think about output as art, systems as artists, and computers as creative. Just like the frames around Ai-Da’s paintings, the frames we use to talk about AI output indicate whether or not what we are looking at can be called art. But, as with any piece of art, your appreciation of AI output ultimately depends on your own interpretation.The Conversation

Leah Henrickson, Lecturer in Digital Media, University of Leeds et Simone Natale, Associate Professor in Media Theory and History, Università di Torino

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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