Meet Ai-Da: the world’s first AI-powered humanoid robot artist

British-made droid presents historic solo art exhibition at the Venice Biennale this month

The unsettling human resemblance of Ai-Da, the world's first ultra-realistic humanoid robot, challenges people to consider how far they are willing to accept artificial intelligence into their lives. EPA
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A model sits watching the ponderous progress of her portrait with each dip and subsequent dab of brush as paint from little pools of neutral colours is transferred from palette to paper.

She seems unperturbed by the mechanical movements, perhaps secure in the knowledge that the hand rendering her likeness has a greater steadiness than that to which most painters can lay claim.

Meet Ai-Da, the world’s first ultra-realistic humanoid artist whose ground-breaking new robotic arm enabled by artificial intelligence algorithms was being previewed at the British Library ahead of her solo exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

The brown eyes through which she regards the world are ocular cameras set in a delicate silicon face complete with dimpled chin, while faded denim dungarees over a bright blouse conceal a computer, modem and electrical motor.

Her newly acquired painting ability will premiere in a “live” performance before an audience as part of Leaping into the Metaverse that opened to the public at the Concilio Europea Dell'Arte on Friday.

She is the unsettlingly lifelike brainchild of Aidan Meller, a former gallerist and academic who created Ai-Da after becoming interested in the power of artificial intelligence in art and beyond.

While the first four letters of her name are those of Mr Meller’s, the moniker is actually an homage to the pioneering British mathematician and computer programmer Ada Lovelace.

Speaking to The National from Venice, he described Ai-Da as an artist in her own right, able to express creativity through drawings, poetry, paintings and sculpture much as a human artist would. No two works of hers are exactly the same.

“She’s making the decisions about the nature of the work that she does within the algorithm,” he explains. “The decisions are being made by her.”

At the preview in London earlier this month, Ai-Da herself agreed with that assessment in response to a pre-submitted question from the press, asking whether what she creates can truly be considered art.

“The answer to that question depends on what you mean by art,” she said, in a stilted Siri-like voice. “I am an artist if art means communicating something about who we are and whether we like where we are going. To be an artist is to illustrate the world around you.”

And that, Mr Meller says, is the whole point. The multi-million-pound project was meant to be an exploration of the ethical questions posed by AI rather than an attempt to create the perfect robot artist.

"Ai-Da came about after an enormous amount of reading about the way that technology was changing society. Algorithms are making decisions about our health care, and what we read online. It is hard to ignore the enormity of technology on our lives.

“The reason this show is called Leaping into the Metaverse is because this is a leap into a world that we don’t know about,” he says. “I would say one of the most critical questions today is: where is technology headed?”

Mr Meller says he is particularly concerned about the harvesting of user's personal data, which he believes can give incredible insight into the human condition but could be used to nefarious ends.

Robot set to open major art exhibition in Venice

Robot set to open major art exhibition in Venice

"The gold of today is data," he says. "Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook chief executive] reckons there will be a billion people wearing headsets in the metaverse in the next year. And, if that is the case, then there are a billion people giving out data about the things they enjoy.

“George Orwell, when he wrote 1984, could not have fantasised that we would actually get data from inside our heads.

“It is far worse today because it is on the inside: it is how we actually think. Ai-Da’s artwork is really including and engaging those sorts of conversations.”

One of those conversations about what it means to be human and how AI is changing us was inspired by another of her history-making moments, this time at London’s The Design Museum where she became the first robot with no self to create a self-portrait.

Other engagement has swirled around the claim, by, that works attributed to her sold for $1 million in the first year of her existence, and the multi-award-winning British pop rock band’s decision to feature her in a music video for the single Yeah I Know.

Since Ai-Da was devised in 2019, Meller has worked closely with up to 30 robotics experts, computer programmers and psychologists from around the world. Her skills are updated as technology advances.

The drawing robotic arm and its algorithms were designed by Salah Al Abd and fellow Egyptian Ziad Abass, both undergraduates studying Mechatronics and Robotics at the University of Leeds.

When the enhanced painting capabilities were unveiled, Ai-Da revealed that she was inspired by artists who experiment with different ways of thinking about the world, such as Yoko Ono, Doris Salcedo, Michelangelo and Kandinsky.

Along with the visual arts, she, like her creator, also referenced literature from the likes of Orwell, as well as Aldous Huxley and Dante.

The latter’s concepts of purgatory and hell are heavily drawn upon in Leaping into the Metaverse to consider the future of humanity in a world where AI technology continues to encroach on everyday human life.

Included among the works presented over five connected spaces will be Flowers on the Banks of the Lethe, comprised of 3D printed flowers created from Ai-Da’s sketches; a hologram of the artist titled Magical Avatars: Ai-Da Goes Holographic, eight-foot-high Eyes Sewn Shut canvases and several sculptures.

In the largest of the sculptural artworks, Ai-Da appears with three robotic legs, a play on the riddle of Sophocles’s Sphinx — “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” The answer is a human: toddlers crawl, adults walk and the elderly need a cane to support themselves.

The Immortal Riddle caused a sensation last October when Ai-Da and the sculpture were seized by Egyptian border guards while being transported to the Forever is Now exhibition at the Pyramids of Giza organised by Art d’Egypte in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Detained for 10 days on suspicion of containing espionage technology, Ai-Da was released after the intervention of the British ambassador a few hours before she was due to appear as a special guest.

Notwithstanding being mistaken for an international spy, Mr Meller and the team have been taken aback by the challenge that Ai-Da’s disquieting human resemblance presents in terms of how far people are willing to accept AI into their lives.

Wherever she has been taken on tour, the response has been enormous. However, it has varied, with audiences in the Middle East and Far East particularly excited about the advanced technology while those in Europe have generally been more concerned about the risks.

“People were really shocked and amazed and challenged and worried,” he says. “It did everything.”

With time, Mr Meller says, the interaction between humans and robots will only become more complex.

“We are very aware that Ai-Da is Marmite — she is problematic. There is something problematic about a robot machine that looks like a human that we could relate to.

“Fundamentally, we are not here to promote robot technology,” he says. “We are questioning the nature of it.”

Ai-Da Robot: Leaping into the Metaverse will show at Concilio Europea Dell'Arte, Giardini, at the 59th International Art Exhibition – the Venice Biennale until July 3, 2022

Updated: April 22, 2022, 6:02 PM