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Can robots make art? The annual robotic art competition is now in its third year, with over 100 submissions this time round and a first place prize of $40,000. The founder of this competition Andrew Conru argues the idea of using robots in the artistic process is no different than any other advancement in artistic technique or genre. “Every generation tries to come up with a new genre, a new style, a new category of art. I don’t see robot art as any different than yet another way for people to express themselves.”

The term ‘robotic art’ covers a range of categories. Some of the submissions to the competition directly involved humans in the creation of the piece itself, for example where a robotic tool was wielded by a human controller, whereas others relied more fully on artificial intelligence. The 2018 winner Pindar Van Arman used what is known as ‘deep-learning’—a type of machine learning that differs from task-specific algorithms and aims to more closely mimic the brain’s neural networks—in order to create “increasingly autonomous generative art systems”. The third place winners focused on technique, training their robot to record and precisely mimic the exact motions and pressures used by a brush to paint a specific work of art.

Not only are robots becoming artists, they’re also giving art critics a run for their money. Berenson, a dapper-looking figure in a bowler hat and white scarf, uses his robotic facial expressions to react to art around him based on analysing the reactions of other museum-goers. On the other end of the critical spectrum, Novice Art Blogger is an automated blog that processes and attempts to analyse abstract art based on deep-learning algorithms. The blog’s descriptions of art are almost more abstract than the art itself, and it is often hard to see how it reaches its conclusions. For example, Stringed Figure by Henry Moore  is described as “a close up of different pieces of a paper bag or rather a piece of wood cutting out of a box with a pair of scissors in front of it. It stirs up a memory of a cake in the shape of a suit case”. Perhaps we mere mortals are simply not on this critic’s level…

Van Arman wonders whether his AI system is “simply being generative, or whether the robots were in fact achieving creativity.” Applicants for Computer Science, Fine Art, or History of Art may wish to ponder this question—can AI ever be creative? In fact, are humans truly creative or do we, like robots, simply analyse, process, and generate based on our own neural networks?

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