Robots find their way in the art world

Robots find their way in the art world

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 21 August, 2015
Disney’s BeachBot, a turtle-shaped autonomous robot that creates sand art.

Can robots create art? Not unless one considers fake Facebook comments to be an art form, I used to think. Then I found about ArtBots, an erstwhile New York talent show open only to robots that create art. Now, the reason this show was called ArtBots should tell you something about how the majority of the world's population views them: it was a reference to BattleBots, by all accounts a wildly popular talent show that features turbo-charged fighting robots who go at one another inside a cage arena, WWE style. So for most of us, a robot is a machine that looks and feels like Arnold Schwarzenegger and has roughly the same artistic value to offer. And yet, ArtBots ran from 2002-2011 (They'll. Be. Back, mind you), with some very striking works in its final couple of editions.

What's the big deal, you ask, about robots creating good art? Well, for one, it would go a long way in humanising robots in the eyes of the average Joe. We now have robots that are programmed to be the perfect butler, the perfect playmate for a young child; we even have robots pre-programmed to give hugs to autistic children, to teach them the value of intimacy. But admirable as all these pursuits are, the idea of all those ones and zeros adding up to something that can make you laugh or cry or just pause to think: now that would really be the clincher.

In 2004, an American named Jim Carpenter used an Electronic Text Composition program (ETC) to create poetry, published and collected in a vault exhibition under the pen-name Erica T. Carter. A section, culled from a poem called Bright reads as follows: "Undimmed radiance curves, primming like the column. / Lounging, as other as very high score. / Loafing a booby. / Lounging and spends. / Normal occasion joints. / Early letter gets the personal experience from the individual. / Getting, tarries however in cell. / Lounging. / Obsesses the disturbed surface. / Obsesses the abyss." (Well, hello, Mr Robot, could you make me one of them "normal occasion joints"? Much obliged. Wouldn't say no to a lounging booby neither.) Feeling confused? So were our parents about 50 Cent, it could be argued. 

We now have robots that are programmed to be the perfect butler, the perfect playmate for a young child; we even have robots pre-programmed to give hugs to autistic children, to teach them the value of intimacy. But admirable as all these pursuits are, the idea of all those ones and zeros adding up to something that can make you laugh or cry or just pause to think.

And let's face it: the best robot poet will be nothing more or nothing less than the most sophisticated text-filter, rather than text producer. It will depend upon the source text. This is where New York Times' chief software architect Jacob Harris struck gold. He devised a haiku bot that scans the newspaper's stories from the website and produces haiku verses from within them (using a syllable-count algorithm and an online dictionary).

Here's what the bot thought of The Unrealised Horrors of Population Explosion, an article from last week that cast a skeptic's eye on the horrors of overpopulation forecast in the 1960s.

"Hundreds of millions / did not die of starvation / in the 70s."

And the bot, it seems, relishes the prospect of a political firefight as well. Out of an April article called Times Reporters Analyse Bernie Sanders's Presidential Campaign Remarks, it coaxed the following gem: "Talk about reaching / back in time for a club to / whack Hillary with." No escaping the realities of our time, then. Or the long arm of the law, for that matter. Quote On

In April, a police department in St Gallen, Switzerland released a prisoner they had arrested on charges of buying ecstasy pills on marketplaces found in the deep web. The prisoner was a robot called Random Darknet Shopper and it was made by a Swiss art group called !Mediengruppe Bitnik, as part of an exhibition called The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland, which wrapped up in December. According to the Bitnik website, "The Random Darknet Shopper is an automated online shopping bot which we provide with a budget of $100 in Bitcoins per week. Once a week the bot goes on a shopping spree in the deep web, where it randomly choses and purchases one item and has it mailed to us. The items are shown in the exhibition The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland at Kunst Halle St. Gallen. Each new object ads to a landscape of traded goods from the Darknet." The items eventually included a fake Louis Vuitton bag, a decoy letter (to check if one's address is being spied on), a baseball cap with a hidden camera, a pair of fake Nike trainers, a pair of fake Diesel jeans, a stash can, 200 Chesterfield cigarettes... the list ends, of course, with 10 ecstasy pills. To their credit, the St Gallen police returned all the items to Bitnik, safe and sound, except the ecstasy pills, which they destroyed.

Two other projects in recent times have used robots to make sand art. The Dutch artist Gjis van Bon made a robot called Skryf that performs sand writing: the artist feeds the poetry through a simple piece of software he developed himself. Of course, the sand gets wiped off by wind, water or passers-by, but the ephemerality is the point. The other project is the BeachBot, an autonomous robot developed by Disney that creates drawings on the sand via a mechanical rake. Now, this is Disney we're talking about, so naturally they've made the robot in the shape of a cute turtle. And in any case, cute turtle bot beats cage-fighting killer bot any day.

How far are we from the day that a robot creates the new Mona Lisa or writes an Illiad-like epic? I sure hope it happens soon, because Arnie has already told us what's happening in 2029, and it ain't pretty.

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