Our automated world

Robots already do many of our jobs faster, cheaper and more consistently than we can. They can process information and analyse data far faster than we ever will. They can produce endless, exact replicas of an object and do so quickly and efficiently without a need for breaks, team-building days or compassionate leave. The fact that ‘human error’ is a qualifying limitation to semi-automated processes shows us where our trust really lies. And their inclusion is far from over, with some literature predicting robots could replace up to half of occupations.

This is not about how robots and machines help us do our jobs better but rather where they could replace us entirely. We can see evidence of this in our daily lives, as ATMs replace bank tellers, self-service checkouts replace cashiers and online reservation systems replace call centre staff and receptionists. And it’s hard to find a strong argument that they have made our consumer lives worse as a result of their arrival. For artists who are trying their best to make it the thought of having to one day compete with technology may seem daunting - could our technological advancements one day take over the art world too?

Art and technology

Technological advances have certainly opened new possibilities in art with new forms emerging with each leap forwards. These advances have inspired artists to widen their perspectives and experiments while increasing their potential productivity.

To talk directly about robotics, there is now an art form dedicated to work produced by, or with the aid of, robots. Mechanical arms reproduce images, to the point of producing seemingly original interpretations. There is also a history of robotics appearing on stage as performers with examples dating back as far as 1985 with Fuyo Robot Theatre.

With the most recent technology, there can be little dispute about the quality of work a robot can now produce in terms of form and technique. Once programmed effectively for the task, robots are excellent producers of art works. But, for me, that still doesn’t mean we are moving towards robots becoming artists.

What makes art, art?

Let’s look at what art is. Art is an odd and unpredictable entity. Its success is not measured like an invention or commodity. Its production does not fit into neat, predictable patterns. Its progression is not consistent and gradual but radical, reactive and rejecting. Art is an opposing and provocative force to much of what else constitutes our modern world.

Art not only informs us, but asks us as viewers to think and reflect. To achieve this, artists must be able to have their own self-reflexive processes – to be able to look at themselves as subjects in context too. This requires qualities found in empathy, understanding how others and we may feel about something. It is not a matter of simple replication but interpretation that offers a crucial “additional level of meaning."

And what is this additional level of meaning? It is the reflection of who we are as part of the conversation that the artwork stimulates. This conversation is only in part about facts and data, which a robot could analyse faster and more efficiently than us. It is also about our emotional, historical, personal and empathetic responses to stimuli. This is why we use art to help make sense of our world and to find inspiration for our own creativity.

This process requires the qualities found in vulnerability. All great artwork comes at a cost and an exposure of some part of the artist; their grief, their hopes, their joys are laid out on the canvas or stage as an invitation for us, as viewers, to reflect on our own. This is foundation to the conversation art permits, provokes and inspires.

Appreciating human error!

Another crucial point is imperfection. We love imperfection. We, as viewers, recognise in imperfection the dialogue it creates with the artists themselves. That ‘human error’ mentioned earlier is actually a real positive in art: it makes an artwork feel authentic, real and lived.

It is partly because it is not made of neat, predictable and perfect endings that we value art. Imperfection leaves us the space to wonder, muse and draw personal conclusions. Imperfection is a human conversation.

Staring at Van Gogh’s three different recreations of The Bedroom, for example, we are enthralled not because it is a perfect rendition of a bedroom or that they are perfect copies but because each choice in each version is imbued with a personal and emotional context. Behind each difference we see a choice he made. This leads us to ask why he made each choice and invites us through his work into his experience at the moment of painting.

Could robots replace artists?

An artist’s skill and mastery of form is only part of what makes them an artist. This part robots can reproduce to a high level. But I’ve argued that there are qualities that can only ever be produced by human artists: vulnerability, empathy and self-reflection. Art provokes us, and for an artist to be a provocateur they must first understand what it means to be provoked. And I do not believe this is not something we can enter into code.

So robots may well replicate art works with great skill and dexterity. They may be programmed to produce creative responses to stimuli that make us feel they are themselves being creative forces. And they will undoubtedly continue to support and inspire further developments for artists and their processes as technology gallops on.

So will robots ever be artists? By this definition, I don’t see how they ever could be.

See how artist Ryoichi Kurokawa broyght together the worlds of science, technology and art for our current exhibition unfold on display until 15 June.