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A Painting Robot With An Ego As Fragile As A Real Artist’s

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Robots are so smart, they’re able to do practically everything flesh-and-blood artists can do whether sculpture, portraiture or light painting. But with the good comes the bad, as Benjamin Grosser, an MFA student at the University of Illinois, shows: He created a robot that's — how to put this gently? — a thin-skinned neurotic.

The Interactive Robotic Painting Machine is deeply influenced by what people say to it, "just as we [artists] subtly (or not so subtly) are influenced by what others tell us," Grosser says.

When left alone, the robot follows its own hard-wired heart, using cheery colors to paint anodyne abstract canvases that’d look perfectly at home in a dentist’s office. When you talk to it, though, or sing to it or, as Grosser did, criticize the hell out of its work (there’s a built-in mike for sharing all your helpful opinions), the robot internalizes what you’ve said and converts the audio waves into data. That, in turn, actually changes how the robot paints. It'd be like Picasso painting in the style of Albert Bierstadt just because someone said his brushstrokes sucked. Sens-i-tive.

The world’s got enough artists with egos that could shatter in a light wind; it really doesn’t need an automated one. Except that the Interactive Robotic Painting Machine makes for a fascinating experiment: When the machine’s constantly bombarded by "Not that color again!" and "Couldn't you try painting something on the other side of the canvas?" you’ve got to wonder: Do the paintings suffer?

Oh, yeah. As Grosser tells it:

When I'm critiquing it, I perceive the machine as painting over previously painted regions more often, more frequently getting stuck on one or two colors while ignoring the others, and tending to quickly home in on a preferred painting speed.

And:

The composition and color distribution of critiqued paintings don't match up to those made without real-time critique.

In short, heeding what people said about its work was an open invite to failure. Let that be a lesson to all you aspiring Picassos out there.

For more on the Interactive Robotic Painting Machine, including a cool collaboration with a violinist, visit Grosser's website.