People often ask why I invent robots that are capable of drawing, as it is a specifically human activity. I have many answers for that, some less true than others. Do I attempt to replace human beings with robots? No. Only myself, perhaps... I started off as a painter. After fifteen years of practice, I felt I reached a dead end. Somewhat naturally, I replaced my "traditional practice" with what I am doing now.
As a kid I was fascinated by computers and robots. That led me to believe that it was possible to get them to draw, an activity that I did not feel like doing any more. From the beginning I realised that if I wanted them to produce interesting drawings, I would have to simulate the processes involved when I drew. This entailed studying perception, cognition, motor control, so on and so forth besides using knowledge about computer science, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI). Although I'm not a computer scientist or technologist, I practice science and technology to develop my artworks.
There is always something interesting when you try to get a robot to do anything. You realise how animals, including ourselves, are sophisticated and adaptable. The real world is highly unpredictable and complex; yet, in the process of trying to get the robots to do anything, we understand more and more things about being human.
The first time I exhibited a robot in public, I was surprised by people's fascination and relation with the robots, especially a robot that drew from observation. In reality, people are not scared by robots. When in their presence, people perceive robots as being somewhat alive, as having agency. As soon as a robot is in public, it becomes an actor; an actor that can suggest beings with stylised behaviours that evocate humanness. This is what I play with to create the installations I exhibit in museums and galleries. I am still amazed at how easily we are fooled by some mechanics just because they look at us and carry out some actions that we can relate to.
Drawing is definitely one of these activities that we can intimately relate to. It is often seen as an indicator of intelligence that we can trace from prehistoric times. When there is a drawing on a rock or a cave wall, we immediately know that intelligent humans created it. When we discovered the drawings in the Lascaux Cave, what we initially considered as primitive beings became our close ancestors. It is perhaps the same mechanism that puzzles, amazes, and fascinates people when they see robots drawing, especially drawing humans.
In the media there are often discussions about the perils of AI and robotics. Recently I gave a lecture to young art students about my work, and they were absolutely horrified by the idea that as part of my practice I was trying to develop robots that were capable of producing works of art. They were scared by the future and potential of technologies to come. The problem with the future is neither with computers nor robots; it is with humans that create and use them. Looking at human history, it is very likely that robots and AI are going to be used in wars and for military purposes to kill people efficiently. However, so will they be used for the good of humanity as a lot of technological progresses are at present. It is our collective and individual responsibility to try to influence the uses of technology.
By getting robots to make art they won't be bothered to make war, they might just try to inspire us. If this does not work, in the eventuality of a robot uprising, I will be safe as they will believe that I emancipated them through art.
Patrick Tresset is a London based artist. In the context of his art practice, Tresset presents theatrical installations in which robotic agents are actors, these installations are often evocations of humanness.
To get up to date information about Patrick's work, visit his personal website and subscribe to the newsletter. Patrick's next solo show in the UK will be in September October 2016, as part of the Merge Festival.