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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

Artistic humanoid robot creates unsettling self portraits selling for big money

By Jeff Spry

One of humankind's most admirable pursuits is its instinctive desire to produce works of art in myriad mediums that inspire, entertain, and challenge our notions of who we are as a species. As an extension of our artistic activities and exploration of what it means to be human, a team of programmers, roboticists, art experts, and psychologists from the University of Oxford and the University of Leeds in England has developed a life-size android called Ai-Da that creates provocative self-portraits and abstract paintings.

Ai-Da is the now star of her own art exhibition titled "Ai-Da: Portrait of the Robot," that just premiered at London’s Design Museum last week and runs through Aug. 29. This talented humanoid robot, whose creative aptitudes extend to drawing, painting, and sculpting, is named after Ada Lovelace, the famed English mathematician considered by many to be one of the world’s first computer programmers. 


The artsy android is powered by artificial intelligence that seeks to replicate the actions and mannerisms of a human female, and communicates using a digitized female voice. Ai-Da is normally clothed in various dresses and wigs, but her robotic arms are usually left exposed.

So far, Ai-Da’s artwork has mostly consisted of abstract paintings reflecting intricate mathematical models, and her initial exhibition collected more than $1 million in art sales. This newest set of self-portraits is thought to be the first instance ever of a machine depicting itself. 

"These images are meant to unsettle," Aidan Meller, the gallery owner behind the creation of Ai-Da, told The Guardian. "They are meant to raise questions about where we are going. What is our human role if so much can be replicated through technology?

"Some people think she is the worst thing ever and feel threatened, and some are really excited," Meller continued. "Her very existence is wrong somehow, and we are aware of that."


Ai-Da's self-portraits are accomplished in part by her camera-like eyes that let the robot look at what she’s sculpting or painting and reproduce a copy of it.

Not being a self-aware entity like we’ve seen in popular sci-fi entertainment, Ai-Da didn’t exactly make the decision to paint herself. Instead, her team of creators uploaded those instructions that trigger an amazing display of the current state of AI and advanced robotics. 

"Over the last year, we've all had such an intimate relationship with technology, so it is a really good time to reflect on that and critically ask questions of it,” said Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum.


Without a doubt, Ai-Da blurs the fine line between human and machine interactions, and questions well-held beliefs about how art is essentially a human concept.

"I enjoy being someone who makes people think," Ai-Da herself told the BBC in an exclusive interview. "I think that art needs more than just the drawing of something; it means communicating something in a way that is relatable."