Artistic Machines: Robot Art

Perfectly synchronizing the worlds of art and technology, robot artists produce artworks based on their inventors’ design preferences. If art is a form of self-expression, however, can artworks produced by non-emotional, programmed brains be considered art?

Above: This robot has been programmed to paint abstract artworks without human intervention.

Leonel Moura

Leonel Moura, a Portuguese artist who dabbles in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, mentions some interesting catch-phrases on his website,; “artificial art”, “artificial creativity” and “non-human art”. The reason why I found these phrases to be interesting is that I have a fairly broad mind when it comes to classifying art. In my opinion, as long as an artist is expressing an aspect of themselves, the product of this self-expression is art. The self-expression can take on the form of dance, painting, sculpture, performance or design. As long as some part of the artist remains eternally in the artwork, according to me, it’s art.
However, I struggle with the concept of robots creating “art”, even if it is “artificial art”. A robot that produces a few scribbles on a page may be able to evoke an emotional reaction from the viewer, yet is it art? What emotions, opinions and deep-seated, heart-wrenching, angst-filled issues could a robot possibly have to express through art?

ISU Genomic Robot
Leonel Moura’s genomic art robot, ISU, can produce a recognizable reproduction of the human form, using permanent ink and acrylics on Plexiglas. The robot is able to recreate a human form, but it does not recognize the human form. It has no opinions, personal experiences or ideas about the human body. Can this really be considered art?

Perhaps it is the fact that these robots are completely devoid of human emotions and experience that makes these “artworks” unique. Maybe the choice of art materials chosen by the designer can be considered a part of the expressive process of art. The inventor could have chosen brushes with colorful inks or paints, yet instead he has opted for a result that has a stark contrast – black lines on a white surface, an exaggeration of the colorless, lifeless nature of robots?

LBot (LegoBot)
Another of Moura’s creation is the LBot, aka the LegoBot. The LegoBot is an autonomous robot, working without the direct instruction of an operator. When the LegoBot senses a specific color, it draws a circle. This is a programmed reaction to specific stimuli. Human emotion is a reaction to external stimuli, with the type of reaction based in an individual’s social conditioning to the stimuli. For example, I am not afraid of spiders, so when I see a spider, I may react with caution and deliberate movements, but a person who suffers from arachnophobia, a fear of spiders, may react to the presence of a spider with disgust and fear. Our individual reactions to the same stimuli are based in our past experiences, our separate opinions of the same stimuli, and our conditioned behavioral responses. In comparison to a human being, a robot has no experiences, opinions or basic human emotions, such as fear, to draw on, and will react to stimuli according to its programming. There is no room for self-development in a robot, such as overcoming a fear or exhibiting a different reaction to the same stimuli. Moura points out that art is an expression of ‘how life could be’, not ‘how life is’, which makes me question if the LegoBot is able to create art, as it lacks imagination and creativity.

Swarm Paintings
Ants, bees and other insects that swarm, create a form of collective consciousness through pheromone trails. Because of this ‘hive mind’ or ‘hive mentality’, thousands of insects can work together as a unified entity to perform a specific task, such as protecting the nest or hive from intruders or moving the entire nest from one area to another.
In 2001, Moura created a series of Swarm Paintings. These paintings were produced by a robotic arm (CAD/CAM machine) that was connected to a computer running an ant algorithm. Using the behavioral patterns created by the ants’ movements, the robotic arm was able to reproduce a visual representation of the hive mentality of ants.

Art based on algorithms is present in nature in the form of spiderwebs, the flight of birds and the migratory routes of animals. However, even when using art materials and tools, can a recreation of these algorithms be considered art? Surely they are simply a visual representation of a mathematical formula?

Humans: Emotional, Self-aware Creators

Abstract Expressionism is an art form that is based heavily in human emotion, creativity and opinion. These paintings offer a warped perspective of the world, a way to view life as it is and as it could be in a different way. Although the artist has offered their own personal experiences, emotions and opinions through the art, the interpretation of the art; what it means to the individual, is left up to the viewer.
In this sense, Abstract Expressionism and robot art are similar. The interpretation of the artwork is created by the viewer’s reaction to the artwork, as the artist’s thoughts, ideas and opinions are not offered to the viewer. In the case of robot artists, the thoughts, ideas and opinions of the robot artists are not available because they simply don’t exist.

One can debate whether robot “art” is in fact art, but my personal conclusion is that robot art is simply the visual representation of mathematical formulas and programming codes. Human artists have the ability to express emotions and ideas through their choice of color, and the creation of texture, depth and perspective. Every mark that a human artist creates on a canvas is unique and expressive, whilst those of a robot artist tend to be almost too perfect, precise and planned. To be human is to err, and it seems that this ability to make mistakes, along with our ability to express emotions, is what makes human art so appealing.

Above: Tracy MacEwan

Above: Kazuya Akimoto

Above: Michael Leyton

Above: Chidi Okoye

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