Robots Can't make Art. Or Can They?

Ken Goldberg / Illustration by Mark Gettys with Midjourney

Image Credits: Ken Goldberg / Illustration by Mark Gettys with Midjourney

Robots can do a great many things, but they can’t make art. That view, common even among AI boosters, has taken a hit with the recent torrent of innovation in artificial intelligence.

In late 2022 ChatGPT was unleashed on the world and was met with collective astonishment. So-called natural language AI tools have been around for decades in the form of chatbots, AI assistants, and various types of text generators. Familiar ones like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson were impressive and even useful—but perhaps more artificial than truly intelligent. ChatGPT was different. Its prose was, at times, so good, so natural, that it felt eerily human.

And the magic that ChatGPT wielded with language, other new generative AI tools such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney cast with images and video. The output of these tools has won photography and fine art competitions and even passed medical boards and the bar exam. They are smart. They are creative. And they learn. Like us.

Like many technological leaps of magnitude, these new tools prompted strong reactions. In the media, early exuberance was soon drowned out by fear. Writers wondered, “Can this robot do what I do, only faster?” Teachers questioned whether their students did their assignments at all. Journalists fretted over the threat of deep-faked photos, videos, and audio. And AI researchers—of all people!—warned that this could eventually lead to the end of humanity itself.

Whether these tools represent the beginning of something or the end of everything, there’s no question that they herald a future in which AI plays an ever-increasing role in a domain long considered exclusively human: the arts.

So who better to take the temperature of this moment than Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg. As an artist and researcher, he has long straddled the worlds of art and technology. His deep fascination with remotely operated robots has yielded both innovations in telesurgery and numerous art installations such as Telegarden, which allowed users to plant and care for seedlings from afar using a robotic arm.

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Original article by Coby McDonald in California Magazine