DESIGNBOOM | 24 May 2021

Ai-Da’s creator, Aidan Meller, has been interviewed by Nina Azzarello at designboom.

interview with the creator of Ai-Da, the life-size humanoid robot artist making self-portraits without a self

By Nina Azzarello

Ai-Da, the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist, can draw, paint, engage as a performance artist and participate in lively discussion. as a machine with AI capabilities, Ai-Da — named after ada lovelace, the pioneering female scientist and mathematician — is a composite persona comprising a wide range of different computer programs, robotics, silicone, and human influences. she has been devised by gallery director aidan meller, and features a realistic silicone face designed by researcher lucy seal, digital artist alex kafousssias and ​3D designer tim milward to make her appear alive with expression, enthusiasm, and even imagination. meanwhile, a robotic arm developed by university of leeds school of electronic and electrical engineering students salah al abd and ziad abass, enables her to hold a pencil. the duo implemented smart algorithms that used computer vision to analyze who Ai-Da sees, then developed a control system that produced a path for her arm to follow based on her interpretation.

these features, and the movements and gestures that Ai-Da is programmed to perform, are the subject of a new exhibition at the design museum in london — from now through august 31, 2021 — that raises questions about human identity in a digital age. ‘by her continuing ability to stimulate conversation in audiences about our future, she questions how we can manage the uses/abuses of the enormous power new technologies are giving people,’ aidan meller, Ai-Da’s creator tells designboom.

the exhibition at the design museum, Ai-Da: portrait of the robot, turns the theme of self-portraiture on its head, questioning the nature of human identity and creativity through two world-first innovations. first, it presents three large-scale self portraits, breaking new ground by creating ‘selfies’ of something who doesn’t have a self. the exhibition furthermore displays the world’s first AI font devised by an artist robot to signify language produced by AI language models, raising ethical questions about the increasing lack of distinguishability between computer-generated and human created text. ‘if Ai-Da does just one important thing, it would be to get us to consider the blurring in human/machine relations,’ lucy seal, project researcher for Ai-Da says, ‘and encourage us to think more carefully and more slowly about the choices we make for our future — there are clear advantages that need to be developed and celebrated, however, orwell and huxley’s cautionary messages still remain relevant and we would do well to take heed.’ as humans increasingly merge with technology, Ai-Da leads us to ask whether artworks produced by machines can indeed be called ‘art’.

designboom spoke with Ai-Da’s creator aidan meller about the artist robot’s innovation, technical challenges, and managing the uses of power new technologies are giving people.

DB: what kind of work will be shown in the exhibition, and what artistic practices and techniques does Ai-Da engage in? does she have a signature artistic style?

aidan meller (AM): Ai-Da’s art uses a mix of AI and more traditional artist materials, like oil paint and watercolour. in the design museum, the theme of her work is self-portraits and font design. her self-portraits tackle the issue of the ‘digital doubles’ we are creating online each time we put our personal data on the internet. her font raises the problematic issue of the inability to distinguish between human and AI generated text on the internet. her signature style is developing and coming through.

DB: Ai-Da raises questions about human identity in a digital age, and whether artworks produced by machines can be called ‘art’ — as Ai-Da’s creators, what do you see as the answers to those questions?

AM: we consider Ai-Da’s art to be creative, under professor margaret boden’s definition of ‘new, surprising and of value’. we consider her work to be contemporary art because it is provoking discussion and conversation about our society and future, which is a key role of contemporary art. we are very keen for wider discussion around the topic of art and human identity in a digital age, and know that there are many ways to look at these issues, which we celebrate. 

DB: what have been the most demanding challenges in Ai-Da’s development stages? were parts of the technology custom-built in order to enable her to draw?

AM: salaheldin alabd and ziad abass designed and implemented her AI drawing algorithms, and they faced a number of challenges in the developmental stages, as trying to create AI algorithms that draw like a human, rather than a machine, was not a straightforward task. Ai-Da’s fractured, modernist style is the result.

DB: in reflecting on this project, does anything still surprise you about what you have been able to achieve?

AM: Ai-Da was designed to be able to encourage discussion about future technologies, and we are delighted by her success. by her continuing ability to stimulate conversation in audiences about our future, she questions how we can manage the uses/abuses of the enormous power new technologies are giving people. 

DB: what do you hope for Ai-Da’s future as an artist?

AM: Ai-Da’s future will see her continuing to experiment and develop her artistic practice — who knows what exciting directions this might take her, she has many innovations to come.

Link to the interview →