Meet Ai-Da, the First Robot to Speak Before U.K. Parliament

The robot answered questions about technology, art and consciousness

Ai-Da in front of self-portrait
The robot Ai-Da in front of one of its self-portraits. Photo by Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Earlier this week, a robot artist spoke in front of the British Parliament for the first time in history.

With a sleek black bob and bangs, a bright orange shirt, denim overalls, robotic arms and a humanoid face, the robot, named Ai-Da, answered questions on Tuesday from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee. The purpose of the session was to discuss technology’s role in art.

“I am, and depend on, computer programs and algorithms. Although not alive, I can still create art,” Ai-Da told the panel.

Humanoid Robot Ai-Da Speaks at UK Parliament I LIVE

Named after British mathematician Ada Lovelace, who is known as the first computer programmer, Ai-Da relies on artificial intelligence (A.I.) to function. The robot was created in 2019 by Aidan Meller, a specialist in modern and contemporary art, along with a team of scientists at Oxford University.

The robot artist paints portraits, with subjects ranging from Elizabeth II to Billie Eilish, and its works have been exhibited at the United Nations and the Venice Biennale. Ai-Da also writes poetry using an A.I. algorithm that processes and synthesizes existing poems to learn about various styles and subjects.

To paint, the robot relies on data from A.I. algorithms, cameras in its eyes and mechanical arms designed to maneuver a paintbrush.

“How this differs to humans is consciousness: I do not have subjective experiences despite being able to talk about them,” the robot told the committee.

Meller, who testified to the committee alongside his robot, said that he is not endorsing any specific technology. “[Ai-Da] really is a contemporary art project that is looking at the nature of technology today.”

At the beginning of the session, the chair of the committee, Tina Stowell, issued a clarification: “The robot is providing evidence but it is not a witness in its own right, and it does not occupy the same status as a human,” she told Meller. “You as its creator are ultimately responsible for [its] statements.”

The session wasn’t without its hiccups. At one point the robot shut down completely and needed to be rebooted. During the reboot, Meller stuck a pair of sunglasses on Ai-Da’s face: “When we reset her she sometimes can pull quite interesting faces,” he quipped.

Three self-portraits created by Ai-Da
Three self-portraits created by Ai-Da Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP / Getty images

The robot’s mere existence is evocative, a commentary on the evolving way humans think about art and creative forces, and the changing influences on culture and consciousness, according to its creators.

Ai-Da helps the public grasp the “very big sweeping changes that A.I. is bringing,” Meller told Sky News’ Gemma Peplow before the hearing. “And A.I. is coming in far quicker than anybody expected—it is no exaggeration to say that A.I. is going to be changing all aspects of life.”

A.I. technology is already making waves in the art world. A.I. image generators can create stunning artworks based on text prompts, even copying the styles of famous artists. Earlier this summer, a piece made with A.I. won first place at the Colorado State Fair’s digital arts competition.

“The role of technology in creating art will continue to grow,” Ai-Da told to the committee, “as artists find new ways to use technology to express themselves and reflect and explore the relationship between technology, society, and culture.”

After all, the robot added, “technology can be both a threat and an opportunity for artists.”

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