In the coming robot world takeover, the art world won’t be spared. There are already plenty of signs of intelligent machines encroaching on the roles of human artists. Take Google Deep Dream’s hallucinatory fractal art; or the meticulous painting bot e-David, which adapts its style mid-process; or Paul-IX, an automated sketch-bot that creates impeccable still lifes.
The latest addition to this growing family of artistic androids is bitPaintr, a portrait-painting robot created by artist and software developer Pindar Van Arman. Recently successfully funded on Kickstarter, bitPaintr uses a brush and paint to make portraits on canvas based on photographs that users upload. It’s done with a mix of its own artificial intelligence, Van Arman’s artistic input, and the user’s input. Not that it needs all this help, necessarily — Van Arman claims his robot is developing its own artistic style.
In two demo videos, bitPaintr paints impressively accurate pictures of Gandhi and Einstein. The robot has also captured the likenesses of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin on the dollar bill, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.
BitPaintr’s style might best be described as robotic expressionism (no offense to expressionists): precise crosshatching mixed with loose, splotchy brushwork in colors that all look diluted with beige. The process resembles an algorithmic attempt at spontaneity, like irregular human handwriting turned into a standardized digital font. There’s something strangely pixelated about these images, despite all the splotches.
But maybe that’s just fear of sentient robots talking. Because whether or not you like them, you probably wouldn’t guess at first glance that these portraits were made by a robot. They’re not paint-by-numbers formulaic; one portrait of Abraham Lincoln looks like a first-year art student’s uninspired Basquiat ripoff, with a tic-tac-toe game scrawled on Lincoln’s face, surrounded by graffiti-esque letters. We’re not nominating bitPaintr for any art prize, but there are definitely humans who paint with less soul than this robot.
bitPaintr and other robotic artists all raise questions that, until recently, have mostly been theoretical, the stuff of science fiction — about the definition of creativity, whether it’s a trait exclusive to humans or whether machines, too, can have original ideas. But we’ll wait for these robots’ results on the Lovelace Test — a 2001 test of a machine’s ability to exhibit creative intelligence — before fully freaking out about the wrath of cyborg artists.