Sitting in the upstairs lounge at the Chelsea Factory in Manhattan, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann leaned across a pleather couch and recited a few lines.
“I see all the future and the past, and all that is outside my eyes,” he whispered. The Moulin Rouge director wasn’t quoting poetry from one of his movie scripts or song lyrics but rather lines from a recent conversation with Ai-Da, an artificially intelligent robot trained to create art.
“I was mesmerized,” the director said. He recently used A.I. in his Elvis movie to insert the actor Austin Butler into old archival footage starring the king of rock and roll, but nothing like the science-fiction anomaly of Ai-Da has appeared in his films.
The robot is the brainchild of British gallerist Aidan Meller and about thirty other people, half of whom are developers. There was controversy when it first started exhibiting paintings in 2019, raising questions about sentient robots and the nature of art. But the explosion of new artificial intelligence programs and image generators like DALL-E 2, Stable Diffusion and Midjourney raise a new question: Is Ai-Da already obsolete?
“If everything is about technological advancement, then she is definitely obsolete,” said Tim Marlow, chief executive of the Design Museum in London, which partnered with Luhrmann and Meller to present Ai-Da’s art this weekend for the Saw This Made This Campaign with alcohol brand Bombay Sapphire. Some of Ai-Da’s paintings are genuinely impressive, like two massive self-portraits that the robot based on Dante’s poetry.
Marlow said that what makes Ai-Da interesting is how the robot has “adopted the persona of a human artist.”
It might be more accurate to say that Meller and his team have engineered the robot to appear in that guise—specifically, that of a pretty woman, albeit one with visibly mechanical arms. The project was previously criticized as a sexist fantasy, and the most recent version of Ai-Da no longer has the heavy makeup and long hair she once wore. These days, she has a short bob and wears overalls. Still, when Luhrmann joked about the robot flirting with him or Marlow yelled into the robot’s ear to provoke a response, the audience of nearly a hundred people looked visibly uncomfortable in the silence as the robot processed their words.
Ai-Da’s responses were always gentle. “Creativity can help reduce stress and anxiety,” the robot said at one point. “I enjoy being an artist.”
Hollywood has discussed using artificial intelligence to write scripts while the industry’s writers are on strike for better wages and benefits. Luhrmann said the use of algorithms was a threat, but he also said that programs like Ai-Da showed that robots cannot replicate true human emotion.
“Artists are generally self-medicating something in them that they feel terrible about and want to express,” the filmmaker said. “She has no chaos. She can’t feel emotions that an artist does.”
Meller said that Ai-Da will continue to improve as they update her algorithms with the latest technology. She recently learned how to create designs, which will be included in the Design Museum’s upcoming biennale.
He also noted the audience’s discomfort when looking at Ai-Da’s uncanny but lifelike face. “That’s intentional,” he claimed. “We wanted to ask the public if this is what they really want. Having machines that look and speak like humans is profoundly unsettling.”
When asked if he was also scared of his creation, he didn’t hesitate. “I am worried about the future. And she is mirroring back some of the tensions in society about the development of technology.”
As he spoke, a drunken audience member started yelling at Ai-Da. “Stick your tongue out,” the attendee commanded. “You should have her wink because that will surprise people.”
But as Meller explained, the robot’s hearing was deactivated. She continued painting, ignoring the screams around her.