Android artist’s show makes over £1 million

Ai-da: “A gimmick that has no bearing on the quality of art produced,” said The Telegraph reviewer.

Can robots create art? One AI artist created by Oxford scientists has just completed her first solo exhibition and sold over £1 million worth of paintings. But some say it isn’t real art.

Ai-Da is an Oxford-based artist whose debut exhibition, Unsecured Futures at Oxford University’s St John’s College, is ending tomorrow.

By all accounts, it has been an astonishing success. “It has been a sold out show with over a million pounds worth of artworks sold,” says Aidan Meller, who runs the gallery.

But Ai-Da is an artist with a difference. She’s a robot, named after computer pioneer Ada Lovelace.

Unlike previous attempts to involve artificial intelligence (AI) in art, Ai-Da draws by “looking” at her subject without human input.

Ai-Da’s “eye” — an advanced camera housed in a prosthetic face — scans any object to gather information. Her robotic arm uses the data to create a pencil drawing. Ai-Da uses algorithms to sketch what she sees to produce expressionist-inspired images.

But are Ai-Da’s creations really art? Is she the artist, or is the human responsible for her programming the real artist?

Electronic composer Holly Herndon has included a unique collaborator on her latest album Proto: an AI “baby” called Spawn. After months of training, Spawn began producing its own songs.

Rui Penha and Miguel Carvalhais, two Portuguese music professors, believe even the most advanced robots are only very complicated tools. It might seem like Ai-Da is painting a work of art, and Spawn is learning to sing, but they are actually only responding to commands.

They argue that when we look at a piece of art, we start by wondering what might motivate us — the spectator — to create that artwork. Because we assume we have a lot in common with the artist (similar bodies, similar life cycles, similar needs), we can use this first-person perspective to understand some of the artist’s feelings and ideas, so we can relate to the artwork.

We will never be able to empathise with an android artist because we have no idea what it’s like to be a machine. Any attempt to understand the work of a robot artist will mean imagining they are human in some sense, and will be a misinterpretation.

I see, therefore I am?

What makes something a work of art? Is it the way it looks, or the idea that inspires it? Whether or not you agree with Penha and Carvalhais might reveal a lot about what you think art actually is. People who think it depends on the way it looks (its aesthetic qualities) take the view that, as long as androids make something beautiful, we will be able to engage with it just like any other artwork.

But if you think that an artist’s intention (ideas and feelings) behind a piece of work is important for our appreciation of it, you might take the view that, if androids don’t think in the same way as humans, we will never be able to understand their ideas. If we don’t understand their ideas, their art will always remain meaningless and without value.

You Decide

  1. What makes something art?
  2. Could a machine ever experience the world as a human does? If not, what do you think would be different?


  1. As a class, pick artworks by three artists and think about what motivated them. What do you think they were feeling, or wanted to say? Write down your ideas and discuss with a partner.
  2. Using the same three artworks, tell the person next to you why you like or dislike the art. Are you an aesthete that likes beauty and skill? Or are you an “intentionalist” that likes to think about what the artist was trying to say?

Some People Say...

“Working with AI has made me appreciate the human body: we’re such amazing sensors. Our eyes and ears and all this stuff you can’t encapsulate in a media file.”

Holly Herndon, US composer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
So far, even the most advanced AI relies on some help from humans to guide it. Ai-Da might change her painting style, or Spawn might improve its singing, but it will always rely on humans to guide the software, manage the data and correct mistakes.
What do we not know?
Whether a machine that doesn’t need a human trainer to learn will have consciousness in a similar way to humans. Philosophers are still debating the nature of consciousness, and there are different ideas about what qualifies as conscious. If there are ever conscious machines, we have no idea what their experience of the world will be like. We haven’t ever interacted with something that didn’t have a biological brain similar to ours.

Word Watch

Ada Lovelace
19th-century, English mathematician who worked on the Analytical Engine. She realised it could be used for more than just calculation — making it the first-ever computer.
A set of rules that tell a computer (or a person) what to do with different data.
Early 20th-century style of art in which the artist isn’t just painting what they see, but distorting it to express their own emotions and mood.
To understand and share the feelings of someone else.
Concerned with beauty and the appreciation of beauty.


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