Robot Painting is Getting Really Impressive

This year’s winners of the RobotArt competition highlight how advanced artificial intelligent robot painting systems have become. The brushstrokes and subject matter depicted points to a future of actual creative machines.

For the last three years, internet entrepreneur Andrew Conru has sponsored a $100,000 international competition to build artistic robots. The challenge was to create beautiful paintings with machines and the only steadfast rule is that the robot had to use a brush. (The full rules are available here.)

WIth over 100 images submitted to this year’s RobotArt competition, a syste, called ‘CloudPainter‘ took the prize, with portraits featuring varying degrees of abstraction.

CloudPainter’s images are created by a team of neural networks, AI algorithms, and robotics.

CloudPainter is a computationally creative painting robot project,” writes the system’s creator, Pindar Van Arman. “My first machine drew simple lines with a paintbrush by connecting dots and painting-by-numbers. My most recent robots use a custom 3D printed paint head, multiple robotics arms, deep learning, artificial intelligence, and computational creativity to make an increasing amount of independent aesthetic decisions.”

This portrait was completed as part of the winning submission by CloudPainter

Robotart’s founder, Conru, told MIT Technology Review that this year’s entries have demonstrated refined brushstrokes and composition. “CloudPainter, the winner this year, has been involved all three years and has made the most improvement in his system,” he says. “The resulting work, while it still uses an inputted photo as reference, can execute paintings using different painting styles.”

By creating something beautiful using a physical brush and robotics, technology is pushing art forward — and vice versa. “AI advances in human mimicry or extension might also affect the fundamental connection between the artwork and those who interact with it,” says Conru.

The source code and 3D models for CloudPainter are available online, and Van Arman has written about and given talks on his philosophy and methodology.

The second prize winner was last year’s winner, the PIX18 / Creative Machines Lab team from Columbia University. They continued with a collection of impressionistic artwork showing a high level of skill with brushstrokes.

PIX18 is the third incarnation of thee generations of robot artists, starting with SEURAT (2008), Pixasso (2012) and PIX18 (2016-). SEURAT was conceived and designed by Hod Lipson and then-student Carlos Aguilar.

When Carlos graduated, Lispson sought to re-implement the project with more artistic AI autonomy. Unfortunately, it was not easy to find a student to continue the project — Engineering and CS students shied away from art, and Art students shied away from engineering. After a few years, Hod decided to implement the AI from scratch and build a second robot himself. The second robot, known as PIXASSO, was a 12-foot gantry system that painted large paintings in his basement.

When Lispson moved to NYC, he scrapped the large robot and built the third system, PIX18.

A PIX18 sample based on a famous masterwork.

PIX18 has two components, an artificial intelligence software module capable of conceiving of a virtual painting and the elecrto-mechanical robot, typically a conventional gantry or articulated arm, then executes the virtual painting onto a canvas or panel.

The physical robot typically requires a human to initially load a canvas, a palette of paints (as specified by the AI), and a brush. From then on, the robot runs automatically, picking up paint with the brush, painting on the canvas, mixing paints, and cleaning the brush as needed. A single painting can take up to 48 hours to paint.

Third prize went to the CMIT ReART team from Kasetsart University in Thailand.

In their submission, artists program a robot brushstroke by stroke, using a haptic recording system that generates volumes of data about the position of the brush and the forces being exerted.

When re-played, reART will generate a perfect reproduction of the original strokes. Haptic recording and playback allows for remarkably high-quality ink brush drawings.

In the future, if a robot is an artist or not, it is clear that products of robot artists are challenging the conventional art world.

Part of what makes art interesting is that it is always seeking to define what art itself is. The emergence of robotic systems that produce results like those shown in the RobotArt competition only stimulate this discussion.

There has always been a dance between art and technology. Many argue that the emergence of camera technology in the late 1800’s, for example, ushered the end of realism, and the birth of impressionism. It took another few decades more until photography itself was accepted as mainstream art. Likewise, the first robot artists will probably be met with a lot of skepticism. As with other developments though, they are sure to push human art to new places.

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