28 February 2018

Drawing robots

Two of this year's summer scholarship students, Hersh and Ping, created drawing robots. Hersh explains more about the work they did at SensiLab.

We often presume art to be the pursuit of humans only. There are many things in the natural world considered beautiful, and yet not ‘artistic’; explicitly or not we usually reserve the term ‘art’ for works deemed to be the product of a high-level, complex intelligence that has made aesthetic decisions during its creation. For instance, we can make a robot that places brushstrokes on a canvas as programmed, and yet most would claim that the programmer is the artist for having planned the composition of the product.

Can the balance of artistic ownership be shifted? Can the robot have more say in the final product?

Consider an insect nest. An individual insect is not usually considered to be intelligent, and yet large populations of ants and termites are together able to create complex, sprawling, impressive nests and mounds. The builders do not follow an architect’s plans, nor guidance from a manager. Each insect follows its own pre-determined, relatively simple rules of behaviour and responds to its sensory input accordingly.

For this project, three robots were developed to explore this question of artistic autonomy while producing colourful line drawings. Their insect-inspired casings allude to the analogy above.

Instead of insect pheromones, these robots sense and respond to the coloured lines on the canvas. The robots use a mix of sensory input, pre-programmed code and random number generators to decide when to put marker to paper and leave their trace on their environment.

Eventually, the canvas is adorned with an intriguing arrangement of colour. The composition is a collaboration between robot and programmer, neither one the sole owner of the decisions made in the process.