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Robot joins Shakespeare, Darwin in UK's National Portrait Gallery

A photo of an android nabs a top prize in an international portrait competition, with judges celebrating it as "a provocative comment on human evolution."

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Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read

Among the portraits of historically significant British figures hanging in London's National Portrait Gallery, visitors will see William Shakespeare, King Edward VI, Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf. Soon, they'll also see Erica the humanoid robot.

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 "One of Them Is a Human #1"  

Maija Tammi

Erica is neither British, nor, needless to say, is she human. But the picture of the stunningly lifelike Japanese bot just won an award in an international photographic portrait competition, and that earns it time in the prestigious museum.

First place in the contest for Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize went to a photo of a migrant teen rescued from the Mediterranean Sea while trying to escape his native Mali. Second went to an image of a women staring out the window of a bus outside a displaced persons camp in Iraq. Third went to a photo of a talking robot who can also blink, tilt her head and express "emotions" via actuators under her dewy silicone skin.  

One of these things is not like the others, though in a short documentary on Erica from earlier this year, her creator, Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, called her "the most beautiful and most humanlike autonomous robot in the world." 

In photographer Maija Tammi's picture of the bot, titled "One of Them Is a Human #1," Erica wears a collared shirt and blazer. She has a slight smile on her face, and her shiny auburn hair falls just below her shoulders.  

During deliberations for the Taylor Wessing prize, the six judges saw only the title of each portrait, so they couldn't be sure whether the shot of Erica, part of a series of android portraits by Tammi, showed a human or a humanoid. 

"It was unclear whether the girl was a human or an android, and this ambiguity made the portrait particularly compelling," reads a statement from the judges. "Tammi's portrait offers a provocative comment on human evolution."

Though rules for the Taylor Wessing contest call for portraits "taken by the entrant from life and with a living sitter," the judges clearly saw Erica as a timely symbol of the increasingly blurred line between humans and machines.  

"I wanted to question what it is to be human and what it is to be alive," Tammi, a photojournalist currently working toward a Ph.D. in art photography at Finland's Aalto University, says in an artist's statement.  

The 59 winning images will be featured at the National Portrait Gallery from Saturday through Feb. 8. Many will be on display for the first time. 

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