Canvas, Camera, Brush, and Algorithms Enable Robot Artist’s Beautiful Paintings

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If there were a Turing test for artificial creativity (AC)—e-David might well be on its way to passing. The robotic system, built by researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany, employs a variety of styles to produce paintings remarkably similar to their human counterparts.

However, although e-David’s paintings look human, the system itself isn’t remotely creative. There is, of course, a team of researchers in the background pulling the strings. E-David’s robot arm is a standard assembly line welder; the computer is a standard computer; the camera a standard camera—the magic is in the software.

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A painting by e-David.

The robot sets down a series of brush strokes then takes a picture. E-David's software analyzes the picture, comparing it to the image it's trying to duplicate, and determines where to shade and color, then plans and executes a new set of brush strokes. Following each set, the system takes another picture and repeats the process, further refining the painting with each iteration.

E-David can work in black and white or dip its five brushes in a pre-mixed palette of 24 colors, cleaning them as it goes. Because the robot is using paint and brush, the process lacks minute control, and the final products seem to display that perfectly imperfect quality we generally associate with human works of art.

The researchers behind e-David want to push the boundaries of machine learning, but also push our definition of art: "The results might even influence our perception of what art is—besides the imitation of existing drawing styles (imagine what Seurat would have been thinking about a robot that helped him with the millions of dots) the machine might enable new techniques since labor plays no role any more. This way very complex visual art works can be created."

Watch e-David in action below and go here to view a display of its paintings:

Image Credit: University of Konstanz/Vimeo

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • Travis Rios July 28, 2013 on 4:13 pm

    This is a cool project, it’s definitely a step in the right direction in terms of human-mimicking robotics.

    And, I think that we should be hesitant to start calling this “art”. Art is a creative expression of a feeling or sensation or idea. This is in essence, a really fancy and complexified Xerox machine. Unless we can develop computers which are able to feel emotion, nothing is expressed or created in this or related endeavors other than the programmers’ and engineers’ desire to mimic human expression.

    On another related point, human creative expression is not the result of an algorithm. Copying and following rules is a hallmark trait of uninspiring art/artists. Art flows from the constantly changing depths of the imagination. Nothing is spontaneously created from this machine.

    • Gareth Walley Travis Rios July 29, 2013 on 1:11 am

      Except you know, this is how David is deciding to express himself, nothing about the computer. He (and a few others) has poured countless hours into this and it is mightily impressive.

      People spray hair spray in their ashtray and that is considered art these days.

      This guy has actually done something creative and impressive, and saying it isn’t art is failing to understand the complexity of what he has achieved. The process of making the pieces is the art.

      • danreedmiller Gareth Walley July 29, 2013 on 11:20 pm

        I think you are both right. On the one hand, this machine, although a great creative achievement, is really just a fancy prosthetic paintbrush, a robot lens and stylus which (in my own opinion) produces fairly uninteresting images that are just “painterly” reproductions of images that have already been composed elsewhere. On the other hand, the act of thinking it up and making it was enormously creative, and this along with the original pre-composition of the images constitutes a larger creative act that could be called art. But it is not “robot art” in the sense of art created, ex nihilo, by a humanly intelligent and creative machine. Working with this machine a Picasso might create the next “Guernica”, but a Thomas Kincade the next snowy cottage at Christmastime scene for Grandma.

        • Bernardo Majer danreedmiller August 2, 2013 on 11:37 am

          If you go look at the works of Leonel Moura, I believe the idea is better explored. The paintings we see here still look like something made with a “fun” software and a webcam pic.