The new Picasso? Meet Ai-Da the robot artist, designed in Cornwall

7th March, 2019

Can robots be creative? British gallery owner Aidan Meller hopes to go some way towards answering that question with Ai-Da, who her makers say will be able to draw people from sight with a pencil in her bionic hand. Meller is overseeing the final stages of her construction by engineers at Cornwall based Engineered Arts.

He calls Ai-Da – named after British mathematician and computer pioneer Ada Lovelace – the world’s first “AI ultra-realistic robot artist”, and his ambition is for her to perform like her human equivalents. “She’s going to actually be drawing and we’re hoping to then build technology for her to paint,” Meller said after seeing Ai-Da’s prosthetic head being carefully brought to life by specialists individually attaching hairs to form her eyebrows.

“But also as a performance artist she’ll be able to engage with audiences and actually get messages across; asking those questions about technology today.” Her skeletal robotic head may stand disembodied on a workbench, but her movements are very much alive.

Face to face with a robot

Cameras in each of her eyeballs recognize human features – she will make eye contact and follow you around the room, opening and closing her mouth as you do. Get too close and she’ll back away, blinking, as if in shock. Ai-Da’s makers say she will have a “RoboThespian” body with expressive movements and she will talk and answer questions.

“There’s AI (artificial intelligence) running in the computer vision that allows the robot to track faces to recognize facial features and to mimic your expression,” said Marcus Hold, Design & Production Engineer at Engineered Arts.

Ai-Da’s makers are using “Mesmer” life-like robot technology for her head, and once finished she will have a mixed race appearance with long dark hair, silicone skin and 3D printed teeth and gums. “(Mesmer) brings together the development of software mechanics and electronics to produce a lifelike face with lifelike gestures in a small human sized package,” Hold said. Ai-Da will present her inaugural exhibition “Unsecured Futures” in May at the University of Oxford, and her sketches will go on display in London in November.

Find out about Engineered Arts:

Engineered Arts are based right here in Cornwall and have an extremely talented team of designers, engineers, artists and developers. All working together to produce hardware and software, that creates joy and entertainment in the most novel way. They use in-house manufacturing facilities to ensure rapid design, prototyping, testing and re-manufacturing. Their robots are often a sales and marketing tool, star attractions at large theme parks and visitor attractions as well as platforms for academic research.

The company, which made a name for itself with its RoboThespian creation, is moving into new robotics realms with new human realistic looking robots. Its human realistic robotics – called Mesmer – have the facial features and skin texture of real people. The likeness to human beings is what is making their success and already the Penryn -based company has sold three to the Sai Teerth devotional theme park in India where they impersonate holy men and deliver devotional messages to the faithful.

Human robot

At the other end of the spectrum, Engineered Arts’ human robots have been used to promote the Westworld HBO TV series, with Ed Harris and Penzance -raised actress Thandie Newton, when it became available on NOW TV. Intended for rich vacationers, Westworld is a futuristic park looked after by robotic “hosts” that allows visitors to live out their fantasies through artificial consciousness.

Michael Todd, creative content producer with Engineered Arts said: “We placed a Mesmer in a London pub with the real person it is based on for a commercial promoting Westworld on NOW TV and that was really cool.”

“The idea was for our robot ‘Fred’ to be let loose on the unsuspecting public inside a specially rigged English pub. Our real life Ted knew he was having a robot being built to resemble him, but up until that point, he had not been introduced to his digital doppelganger. To say he was pleased with the result is putting it mildly.”

Robothespian

He added: “Our new robots have had a lot of development and we’re already selling a few which is great. We have more on our order books which is even better. We sold three to this religious theme park in India where our robots impersonate religious figures and talk to the disciples and perform the gurus’ famous speeches. That’s different to what we’ve done before but it’s also really cool.” “RoboThespian is still very much our bread and butter and we continue to sell him around the world but the trend is very much towards the human realistic robots.”

Mesmer robots may be on the rise but RoboThespian has continued to take an active role on the world stage, even performing a stadium show to 40,000 people in one day, with real life astronaut Andre Kuipers and doing a Ted talk at TEDx Truro.

Sea waves

The team at Engineered Arts has grown in the last 12 months and now employs 19 people. Mr Todd said:

“Engineered Arts is doing very well. We have expansion plans on the horizon as well as new clients in Australia we’re looking forward to work with. We’re still very much doing the roboty robots building the human looking ones is where we’re expanding into.”

To read the article on Ai-Da click here, or to read the full original Cornwall Live profile on Engineered Arts, click here.

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