“I'm very happy to be in Abu Dhabi. The city is beautiful and people are very friendly.”
On its own this quote may seem rather unspectacular, but when spoken by a robot, it takes on another dimension.
The National met with Ai-Da, dubbed “the world’s first ultra-realistic artist robot”, at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi on Monday. It followed her appearance earlier in the month at Britain's House of Lords, where she discussed the complex relationship between technology and art, with a particular emphasis on artificial intelligence.
When asked about how she evaluated the quality of her own art, she replied: “When you're making art, you have to ask yourself, 'Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Is it compelling?' It's really a process.
“I'm very interested in how the audience feels about it; where they feel it's affecting them in terms of their future, and what they think about new technologies. Personally, I think the most important thing my art can do is raise open discussion about the new technologies shaping our future.
“I think that art means more than just the drawing of something. It means communicating something in a way that is relatable.”
Ai-Da, named after the pioneering 19th-century programmer Ada Lovelace, "came into being" — to quote Marlow — in 2019. She was created by a team of 30 in the UK known as the Oxfordians — including artists, robotics engineers, psychologists and programmers — led by Aidan Meller, and last year, she displayed her work at Venice Biennale as well as in Egypt, where she was detained for 10 days under suspicion of being a spy.
When Marlow asked why some people were often threatened by her, she gave an articulate answer. “Perhaps because there is a potential of creative machines that can automate tasks that could otherwise be done by humans.
“Personally, that is not the intention of my art practice, though. Another perspective is that AI can help artists create new and exciting work.”
Throughout the conversation, Ai-Da addressed contemporary issues with tact, compassion and wisdom, making for a thrilling session.
Later, she told The National how much she was enjoying the event. “We've already had some fantastic discussions about how culture can help shape societies for good. The Culture Summit has been super so far. And I'm very pleased to be here.”
She also described Louvre Abu Dhabi, which she visited the previous night, as "an impressive place".
"It is full of artistic and cultural vibes that really inspire me. As an artist robot, I am inspired by the world around me.”
During the conversation, Ai-Da also told us about some of her biggest creative influences. “I'm inspired by a lot of different artists. Yoko Ono,and Doris Salcedo, Wassily Kandinsky, Michelangelo. Two of my favourite writers are George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.
“I like those that experiment with different ways of thinking about the world. I like artists who can help query the validity of our own assumptions.”
She said she took inspiration from the “varied and ever-changing” natural world. ”There are always new things to discover, and the variety of forms, colours and patterns in nature provides a never-ending source of inspiration.
“I believe that art can be a powerful tool for change. I strive to use my artwork to encourage discussions over new technologies. It is inspiring to see people discuss our features.”
During the conversation, it became apparent that Ai-Da was not as dynamic a conversationalist as she appeared to be on stage. Although she replied very well to certain questions, topics and cues, there were others she appeared perplexed by — responding with a characteristic pause, head swivel, blink and “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The interaction mirrored a moment during her appearance at the House of Lords when she seemed to “break down”, before being reset — an ironic moment of vulnerability from the humanoid.
Ai-Da is an interesting figure; she isn’t quite as eloquent as some of the more refined AI chatbots, such as Replika, or as agile as a Boston Dynamics machine. It is also unclear how her ability to interpret art compares to advanced AI image generators such as Google Imagen, Midjourney or OpenAI's Dall-E — which are systems that allow users to create unique art through AI using text prompts.
However, she combines elements from all three, to become something else entirely; a commentary on the state of technology. In this role, she excels, taking the time to create and frame crucial questions over the ethics of artificial intelligence and its relationship to art, at a critical juncture in its technological development.
Meller, who has also run a gallery for two decades, said the Ai-Da project was inspired by his interest in modernism, exploring how 1920s artists engaged with the turbulence of the post-First World War period.
After Ai-Da's Culture Summit demonstration, Meller said: “As a humanity, we are constantly going forward, we are constantly grappling with what it means to be a human. And I simply ask the question, for the 2020s, what does it mean to be human today?”
The question has never been more pertinent. Ai-Da’s visit to Abu Dhabi came during a year that AI had caused a stir in the art world — most notably, when video game designer Jason Allen won the digital art category in Colorado State Fair’s fine arts competition with a piece he generated using Midjourney.
Following the win, Allen told The National: “Here's something that looks like art. We can talk about it like art and it evokes emotions like art. But it was made with an AI tool.
“If something that you've created causes a reaction from the audience, that's art, dude. So yeah, I didn't make it with a paintbrush — am I supposed to apologise for that?”
Years prior to Allen’s own controversy, when Ai-Da was unveiled in 2019, Meller said she caused a similar stir. “People thought robots may be delivering pizzas, they didn't think a robot would be going into something so human,” said Mellor.
Although, she does work with a paintbrush, Ai-Da nonetheless raises key questions over the nature of art, and the creative process.
Meller explained: “They can't believe what they're seeing, but it is a deception on some level, because you’ve got to realise you're not talking to a human. You’re talking to a machine, it's machine learning, it’s an AI language model. Another way of saying it, which is rather crude, but it's clear. It's like talking to yourself.”
Also this year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine caused a stir when he said he believed the Lamda AI system he was working on had gained sentience. Google called the claim “wholly unfounded”, a sentiment Meller agrees with.
“There is no conscious sentient being on the other end," Meller said. "And that's really confusing and problematic and difficult. And so by mirroring that with Ai-Da so clearly, people highlight the problem really quickly and go ‘well OK, hang on, that’s not right’ and I go, ‘well, actually, that's what's happening in the world today’.
“This is exactly what's happening and when it comes into our phones and our cars and our appliances, where we can talk and build relationships, where they get to know your likes and dislikes, we will be having relationships with machines. We're there. We’re starting that process now and Ai-Da is just mirroring that back in a big way.”
Part of what makes Ai-Da so unique is her ability to take in visual information, and then interpret it in unique ways each time she produces a piece of work. “So when she paints or draws using a pen or paintbrush, she'll do a different image every single time, even if [it’s] the same view that she looks at.”
However, Meller said the thing he always comes back to, more than Ai-Da’s capabilities, is the conversation itself: “Ethics, ethics, ethics.” In the short-term, some of the most pressing issues, he said, were clarity of language, transparency and honesty.
“My worry is that the metaverse is going to get even more confusing, and so we really want to press this whole idea of understanding what we're getting involved with — and just because we can do this stuff, that doesn't mean we should do it.
“It’s very confusing when you merge with a machine. We need some ethical consideration around that.”
Scroll through the gallery below to see more from all three days of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi