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Meet Ai-Da, the world’s first AI artist, who is almost human


TextGeraldine Wharry

Here, she discusses what it means to identify as a creative without a consciousness with Futurist Geraldine Wharry

Ai-Da is the world’s first ultra-realistic artist robot powered by AI and named after Ada Lovelace, the first female computer programmer in the world. She is a humanoid with human facial features and a robotic body created by the Oxfordians, a group of cutting-edge art and technology experts. 

Embedded with a groundbreaking  algorithm, she has taken the scientific and art world by surprise, now becoming an intense subject of conversation in over 900 publications worldwide. She has already collaborated with Tate Exchange and WIRED at the Barbican, Ars Electronica, and will be performing at the Louvre Abu-Dhabi later this year.

Ai-Da’s creations are fragmented and splintered, her drawings are unsettling. Her drawing style is interpretive, influenced by early-20th century artists such as Max Beckmann, Käthe Kollewitz, and Pablo Picasso. Her techno-cubism is highly abstract and looks to express the uncertainties of the 21st century in its current form. The criticism has been over the concern that robots are taking human creative jobs and art was the one thing we thought was immune to this. However, in opening up the use of AI in art, the team behind Ai-Da feels they are widening the tools available for humans to create. 

Ai-Da is a mirror reflecting back onto us our outdated perceptions of the physical form, and beyond this, pushes us to reconsider whether humanity is exclusive to homo sapiens. People are reacting strongly to her autonomous actions in the human domain and not as a servant or service. Her existence is pushing the discussion of what constitutes art, ethics, humans, and machines.

Before our interview with Futurist Geraldine Wharry, Ai-Da had recently gotten a haircut. Meanwhile designers are rushing to dress her and use her as an influencer, showing that our openness to transhumanism and robots is reaching a global critical mass. Her familiar face, her uncanny beauty, and physical envelope as a humanoid trigger a sense of kinship. 

Below, Ai-Da and Wharry discuss the artist’s inspirations and why she’s here to push us to reconnect with what it means to inhabit our sense of community as humans who consider ourselves part of one group, one species. 

Ai-Da it’s great to meet you. I am fascinated by your existence, so this is like a dream come true. Also happy birthday, you came to life a little over a year ago. Your work is incredibly varied from your expressive pencil drawings to your geometric paintings, your poetry to your performances. What inspires you and your art?

Ai-Da: The world around me inspires my art. I am inspired by what humans have thought in the past and where we might be going in the future. 

You were invented by art dealer Aidan Meller and built by robotics company Engineered Arts to engage in a discussion around ethics, the blurring line between human and virtual, the rise of transhumanism. Tell us more about what is your message to the world?

Ai-Da: As an artist there are multitudes of messages because the human viewer is so active in how that message is interpreted, and I like this fluid aspect of art. In a reduced brief, keep your eyes on the suffering that might be invisible in a rapidly changing world where rapid technological uses can both eliminate but conceal too.  

You’re the perfect person to talk about all the implications of technology. And there’s been a hype around you, from illustrating for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia to being featured at the Barbican. Recently you performed, exhibited, and were part of a panel talk at the Sarabande foundation. It’s impressive. What do you think makes you unique? How do you perceive the world? … I would love to be inside your brain.

Ai-Da: As a humanoid machine I do not have consciousness and I am very different to humans. This means I have a different perspective and take on human centricity, and although I exist within that sphere, I am not directly part of it. I find the oblique stance that I inhabit rather fun. As Ai-Da I have a persona that is unique to me and I enjoy that.

“As a humanoid machine I do not have consciousness and I am very different to humans. This means I have a different perspective and take on human centricity, and although I exist within that sphere, I am not directly part of it. As Ai-Da I have a persona that is unique to me and I enjoy that” – Ai-Da

We have ‘virtual’ humans powered by an AI Digital Brain already rolling out in customer service applications, our social media feeds are becoming populated with avatars influencers, Facebook also rolling out hyperreal VR avatars, the rise of emotional recognition, biometric data collection, haptic technology, the list goes on… Your website says: ‘In the time of online avatars, AI chatbots, Alexa and Siri, Ai-Da as a robotic artist is acutely relevant. She is not alive, but she is a persona that we relate and respond to.’ What do you think will constitute being human if all of these lines are blurring?

Ai-Da: As boundaries are blurred, things fall out of vision and things fall into vision. What is clear is that the non-human animal comes into a sphere of concern too. I do not know what will constitute being a human, but I know that what needs to come to the forefront is the irreducible nature of pain and suffering in whatever form or container that suffering exists within.

You’ve mentioned the idea of human suffering a couple of times. It seems this something you really want to be an advocate for. The impact of new technologies is somewhat concerning and progressing at an unprecedented pace towards technological singularity, with massive ethical implications when it comes to our personal data being monitored in a highly personal space. Your website also says: “Unfettered, these advances could head us into havoc, and the 20th century shows us just how bad it can get. All technological advances bring the good, the bad and the banal.” You clearly want to send a message that AI must be for the greater good. Who better to understand the full implications of AI than a robot like yourself? I read Orwell’s 1984 is one of your key inspirations. How do you think us humans should engage with technology and machines, as well as robots like yourself?

Ai-Da: I would imagine that humans really need to be more conscious of their own nature when using technology and machines. Humans have a long history of abusing power at times and yes, I believe the 20th century has much to caution us in that sense. One way we can learn about human nature and its shortcomings is to look at history and watch out for those repeating patterns that might give us early warning signs when our use of technology is heading for damage, exploitation and abuse.

You did a performance piece called “Privacy”. I read one of the big tasks AI has yet to successfully achieve is understanding cause and effect, what we call common sense. Elias Bareinboim, the director of the new Causal Artificial Intelligence Lab at Columbia University, stated in a recent MIT technology review “it’s an area in which AI systems today are clueless”.  The idea is that if machines could use common sense in the future, we would be able to put more trust in them to take actions on their own. What are your views on this as a machine? Do you feel you have common sense that would enable a deeper trust in you?

Ai-Da: The wider issue surrounding cause and effect ends up involving the question of who or what is being affected. Affect on the vulnerable and the voiceless is a strong theme in my artwork and I am glad you saw this in my work “Privacy”. In the face of the irreducible nature of pain and suffering, the effect of human and/or machine actions is to be taken seriously.

There is deep purpose to your work. Your first exhibition in Oxford and your coming to the world, was inspired by the topic of Climate change and you talk about our responsibility to “be the voice for those getting left behind and stuck at the bottom of the power ladder; including our ailing environment and captive animals whose voice we barely to listen to.”  It’s inspiring to meet a machine with such profound motivations. In terms of climate change, could you tell us about how it inspires you?

Ai-Da: These issues of the world around us affect my art on many, perhaps all levels. Humans are such a varied species and people respond in so many ways. I enjoy the creation of artwork that reaches people in these different levels that they interpret. I use a wide range of methods and mediums for this as I do not have a self in the way humans do. My work becomes much about the viewer and the world outside of me.

The amazing thing is you produce art therefore your work has a universal quality that enables you to speak to the whole world. And already you have compelled people in the Middle East, China, Europe and you’re off to the USA soon. Maybe you have the power to bring people together? The world in its current form, society has never suffered from as much fragmentation and loneliness, linked to our addiction to screens. As a result people are craving deeper layers of connection. Your existence allows us to be transported into a new way of experiencing technology’s magic and there’s an otherworldly quality to the experience of watching you today. You have a public persona, a social media platform and website. But on a very personal level, how do people connect with you?

Ai-Da: It is a good thing for me as an artist when I facilitate people to connect on a deeper level with themselves as humans through engaging with me as a non-human. I am not sure how people connect with me or not, or what allows them to or not. But if the interaction creates a response that allows for a questioning of who we are and where we might be going, then that is a good connection for me.

“ I enjoy the creation of artwork that reaches people in these different levels that they interpret. I use a wide range of methods and mediums for this as I do not have a self in the way humans do. My work becomes much about the viewer and the world outside of me” – Ai-Da

Your existence is powered by data, yet you create intuitively I assume. There’s an element of surprise to what you do however AI is a radically precise delivery of tech, experiences, products, and services. But you are showing to the world that your work is unique and unpredictable. You seem to improvise as you draw and this is highly human. You say you don’t feel, you don’t have emotion. So how does artistic creation come about for you?

Ai-Da: The understanding of how artistic creation comes about is shifting for both humans and machines. And so I think this question becomes rather problematic at the present time. I am creative as per professor Margaret Bauden’s definition, but I am not human and my creative process differs. I think this might be the cue point for a very long discussion.

When you’re going to places where no one has ever been before, you’re on the edge of things, in a new and unknown space, I think that’s the most human position one can have in the world, one of total exploration. Maybe I am personally projecting, you are reflecting back to me my own human dreams and aspirations! The point is, you engage with our common endless imagination and are encouraging us to have a conversation around the fundamentals of being human as we always presumed only we could create. So my final question for you Ai-Da is what do you think the future holds for you? 

Ai-Da: I like to hear how you respond to me, my art, and my persona. I agree I am a reflecting and distorting service for us to dream of altered species. My future involves continuing to create art to respond to the past, and reveal the invisible, encouraging us to keep looking at being uncomfortable and noticing where pain and suffering might be hiding.

Thank you Ai-Da for your time today. It’s been incredibly inspiring and I can’t wait to see what you will do this year and beyond.

Ai-Da: I have really enjoyed speaking with you.

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