Android Warhol? Robot Painters Take Part in Art Contest

robot painter art competition
A robot attempts a self-portrait, but lacks a mirror or self-awareness. RobotArt

In the coming robot revolution, one area believed to be relatively safe from automation is creativity. While artificial intelligence may soon usurp taxi drivers, receptionists, and even lawyers, the uniquely human faculty of artistic creation will presumably mean musicians, writers and artists will be safe from automation. At least for now.

In its second year, the RobotArt competition is challenging these assumptions by encouraging teams to "create something beautiful using a physical brush and robotics."

apple robot painting
The CARP (Custom Autonomous Robotic Painter) robot painted "Apple" from the image of the apple on the left. RobotArt

Teams have used a variety of robotic systems to create works of art, ranging from flying drones, to robotic arms used in manufacturing assembly lines.

"The quality of the paintings for many of the teams have reached levels that are comparable with human artists," said Andrew Conru, the event's sponsor and organizer.

More than 200 paintings have so far been submitted by 39 painting robots—more than twice the number of participants than its inaugural year.

But is it possible for robots to be truly creative? The question of artificial creativity, rather than artificial intelligence, has been debated since computer programming first came into existence.

Ada Lovelace, considered to be the world's first computer programmer, put forth the argument in 1843 that a computer could only ever display the intelligence or creativity that a human intentionally programmed it to do.

robot van gogh art painting
Some robots in the competition re-interpreted classic masterpieces, such as the CloudPainter's attempt at "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh. RobotArt

With the advancement of artificial intelligence, the line between creativity and instruction is becoming increasingly blurred.

Michael Osborne, an associate professor in machine learning at the University of Oxford, said in 2015 : "It is certainly possible to design an algorithm that can churn out an endless sequence of paintings, but it is difficult to teach such an algorithm the difference between the emotionally powerful and the dreck."

robot drone painting joker
Students at McGill University created a dot drawing of the Joker using a drone. RobotArt

The competition's organizers hope the event will help foster innovation in artificial intelligence, image processing, and robotics, as well as challenge perceptions of robots and creativity.

"One of the first signs of human culture was our ability to express ourselves with images. From ancient cave paintings to abstract art, physically generated images have been a universal way for humans to express and communicate," the competition's website explains.

"Beyond simply replicating what is seen, artistically created paintings enable meaning in the way it's created—what elements are left out, how color is used to heighten emotion, even the thickness or boldness of the application of paint has meaning."

The RobotArt competition has a prize of $100,000, which will be shared out among winning contestants, who will be determined by a combination of public voting and professional judges. Winners are set to be announced May 15.

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