Ai-Da the robot artist's first exhibition has us asking: What even is art?

Are her drawings the art? Or is she the art? Or is it all art? Much to think about.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read
Watch this: Ai-Da, the AI artist

What do the artists Andy Warhol, Tracy Emin, John Constable and J. M. W. Turner have in common aside from world renown and enviable success?

It's a question that bothered Aidan Meller as he decided to turn his own hand to the process of creating art. Meller is director of his own gallery in Oxford, England, and the man behind a new robot-centered exhibition scheduled to open next week in the university city. 

"Without exception ... every single one of them was hitting the zeitgeist of their time," he said. Meller could see that in 2019, heading into the next decade, the one thing that would underpin almost every innovation and exciting development in the world was AI. With this in mind he decided to create a robot that could bring art forth into the world while facilitating a conversation about the potential of AI.

And so Ai-Da the art-producing robot was born (named after Victorian computing visionary Ada Lovelace). 

Ai-Da has a humanoid head and neck, including a full head of long hair. The mechanics of her torso and limbs, meanwhile, are openly exposed (if sometimes partially clothed) -- all the way down to her fingers, which are capable of grasping a drawing implement. Using cameras in her eyes, she can identify what's in front of her and commit it to paper by hand, in her own unique staccato, impressionistic style.

Next week, for the first time, Ai-Da will open her own exhibition at the Barn Gallery, attached to Oxford University's St John's College. The exhibition will feature framed pictures of Ai-Da's own pencil drawings alongside paintings generated from her perception of objects and scenes she's observed in the world. Next to Ai-Da herself, there will also be small statues of her rendered in bronze based on scans she's taken of her own figure.

Everything about Ai-Da, from her mechanics to her AI brain, voice and appearance, is the result of a collaborative process. Researchers and experts from Oxford and Leeds Universities and British robotics company Engineered Arts all contributed to building her. Her voice and her face aren't based on any one human being. Instead they offer up a blend of features from a variety of contributors. But it was vital that she take a humanoid form, explained Meller.


Ai-Da with her artwork on display at Oxford University.

Katie Collins

"When you look at art, it is through the lens of an artist," he said. "If we didn't have a humanoid one, it would be far more difficult to relate to the artist."

Similarly, she needed to have her own unique style of drawing that would produce something original and unpredictable.

"We didn't want to go down the simplistic route," said Meller. "We realized that if we did that, people just say it's an expensive printer. No, this is an AI algorithm, it is entirely creative -- we do not know what the outcome will be."

As well as producing art, Ai-Da also is the art. She's been created in part as a performance artist. At the moment, this means performing preset routines in which she talks and moves, or being remotely controlled by a human who can dictate her words and movements. Meller has ambitions for her to become at least semi-autonomous in her interactions with people.

Similarly, although Ai-Da's drawing is controlled by AI, the paintings on display at the gallery are collaborations with humans who guide Ai-Da's perceptions of the world through algorithms that generate a visually appealing piece of art. Meller sees it as purposeful experimentation into the ways humans and technology can work together to create art in the future, and whether art can truly be called art without some level of human intervention.

"There's lots of discussion about this whole area," he said. "Should it be autonomous? Should it be in collaboration? Actually, why not do all of those things? Let's explore this whole area of AI technology. It's incredibly exciting, so let's explore -- and let's not put too much pressure on it -- just to find out what we can do with it."

Ai-Da and her artwork will be on display at the Unsecured Futures exhibition at The Barn Gallery, St John's College, Oxford University from June 12 to July 6.