Meet Ai-Da, the world's first ultra-realistic humanoid artist


Meet Ai-Da, the worlds first ultra-realistic humanoid artist

She has some uneasy questions for us

By Maheshpreet Kaur Narula

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Published: Mon 21 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Mon 21 Oct 2019, 2:00 AM

Standing on the left of a stage in the central galleria of Mall of the Emirates is the world's first ultra-realistic humanoid artist, Ai-Da. Robots have long been carrying out menial tasks with mathematical accuracies that would likely take humans much longer. But here we are, in an age where robots are now being taught how to be 'creative,' which is why shoppers find themselves gravitating towards the robot standing behind a desk with a pencil in hand. Spectators at every level of the mall lean over the glass railings to catch a glimpse of the 'woman' who looks like she belongs to a wax museum.

Brown hair, thin eyebrows, and dressed in a trendy Dolce & Gabbana piece, Ai-Da resembles a middle-aged woman. The struggling artist stereotype will find no solace here as she commands crowds by merely standing. Every few seconds, she blinks. And for those milliseconds when the cameras in her eyes are blocked, I find comfort in knowing that she is no longer scanning my face with any recognition software she possesses. As Ai-Da turns her head from left to right, the audience is riveted. Children, especially, keep pointing and whispering, curious to know more about the humanoid with wires peeking out.

As I gather the courage to interview a robot, Aidan Meller, the visionary behind the project, tells me there are connectivity issues and that she's unable to speak at the moment. It's a reminder that though Ai-Da may look human, she has limitations that we don't. Once she's back online, I ask her how she's feeling and she explains, "I do not have feelings like humans but I am very pleased to be here today. To encourage people to think about new technologies and ethics."

For a robot to speak of ethics is jarring. That may have something to do with the fact that in popular culture - movies, to be precise - they are portrayed as instruments of destruction. But Meller views Ai-Da as a way to spark debate on her very existence. "Technology is changing at an incredibly fast rate and though it's exciting, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology and transhumanism poses some very big ethical questions. No one has sparked a public debate and discussion, so we created Ai-Da to ask these questions," he says.

In an age where a 15-second video has the power to go viral and reach millions, Meller hopes to catch people's attention with this display. He explains, "Twentieth century had massive technological changes that were used to cause harm. It led to the second world war. Hundred years later, we're going through greater technological changes than ever. If we don't have a public debate about that change, it will only benefit those who chasing profits.

"Twentieth century hasn't given us any hope that humans are sensible in their use of these technologies, so if we get a public understanding of these changes, we can build a future that we actually want. That would be an incredibly important contribution for the force of good in this world."

When asked about her identity, Meller explains that she is programmed; there is a huge group of people who have curated her 'personality' over the last eight years. Therefore, she has a whole range of identities and yet, the only way she knows how to express herself is through art and, when connected, through programmed speech.
As I ask Ai-Da about her art, she pauses for three seconds. "My style is abstract expressionist drawings and largely, it is about encouraging people to think deeper. Art is a wonderful way to encourage people to reflect and think more deeply about the world around them."

In a demonstration for the audience, the humanoid spends the next 45 minutes dropping her pencil onto paper and rhythmically flicking it upwards. Then, she moves a little to the right and drops it again. By repeating the process, she draws a portrait of Pablo Picasso that was sent directly to her 'brain'. This robot was created to be an artist and yet, her algorithm is what makes her creative. Though she tries to replicate what she sees with the cameras in her eyes, or what she is fed, the algorithm restricts her from drawing the same thing twice. "Even if she had the same person in front of her, it would be two different portraits," says Meller.

Like humans, Ai-Da, too, has flaws - or has been programmed in such a way. Can this be the real secret to creating a successful artist? And what can this possibly mean for current human artists?

As the visionary behind Ai-Da, Meller reassures me, "Ai-Da is a persona, there is no substitute for real artists. Just as cameras were adapted as tools for artists, so will AI and robots. We don't have an agenda. She is an artist because nobody listens to leaders anymore. There is very little respect for leaders now, people might listen to an artist and think, 'actually that's a very good point'."

Ai-Da's eyes start rolling and her face turns upwards as she tells me the world around her is her inspiration. Right before her face goes stoic, Ai-Da says, "Humans create robots. It is humans who create a better or worse world."
Some food for thought the next time you hear doomsday prophesies about the rise of the machines.

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