The Uncanny & Artificial Intelligence: Meet Ai-Da

Ai-Da faces the room. Dungarees on, paintbrush poised, a pallet of paint at the ready. No need for ‘quiet please’. This artist needs no inspiration, no peace, no cigarette breaks. Ai-Da, with her new abilities revealed for the first time in London, is about to create a real-time portrait. It will not spring from the mind, but from a mind-blowing and vastly sophisticated A.I. programming which directs her robotic arm.


‘I do not have feelings like you do’, Ai-Da calmly states, working with slow, fluid movements, when asked why she paints. A robot cannot feel emotion, cannot be inspired, or struck by beauty. However, in this modern activation, a robot can take what it sees and evoke emotion in humans with its artificial creativity.

A robot can take what it sees and evoke emotion in humans

Ai-Da, created by Aidan Meller and named after Ada Lovelace – the inventor of computer programming – has been programmed and tuned anew. This robot is now capable of painting portraits of people through her eye-cameras, facial recognition software and bespoke robotic painting hand.


In the past, arguments around artistically-inclined A.I. often claimed that nothing new is created, it is just repackaged to fool or convince an observer. That the result is pre-prepared somewhere in the coding. However, Meller makes clear that, ‘Ai-Da cannot create two paintings that are identical. Each and every piece is individual and original’.

Meller’s creation of Ai-Da is a fascinating statement about A.I. and its originality. With artificial intelligence, facial recognition and tracking systems becoming increasingly prevalent and invasive in walking life, Meller, as a specialist in contemporary and modern art, decided to raise questions about how much we actually want – and need – this technology in our lives.


‘This blending that we’re doing at the moment between technology and people, it’s homogenising with the nature of artificial intelligence. From 2025 onwards there will be hundreds- of-thousands of trained people who can utilise new data and artificial intelligence. The technology will become more affordable, more efficient. The relevance of Ai-Da’s artwork will only become more relevant as these technology changes occur,’ explained Meller.


The paintings Ai-Da produces are entrancing, stimulating artefacts. They have a warped anomalous air to them. You can tell something is disturbing about them… but this does not diminish their appeal. In the art of the human hand their is a distinguished element of rhythm signature to a human artist; colours and textures are worked into the canvas with streaks, dabs, dots and dashes. That, so far, only the human touch, can create. In Ai-Da’s case the choices of her programming feel alien and look cubically askew, but are just delicate enough to feel familiar.

When observing the process unfold it makes you wonder; who is really the artist here, Ai-Da or Aidan Meller? The lines that separate them are clouded, mysterious. There is almost a surrealism at play here, more than a shadow of similarity in what Meller has achieved with Ai-Da and some principles of the uncanny.


Just like automata and doppelgängers, Ai-Da makes us feel uncomfortable. When Freud first wrote his seminal paper on the ‘The Uncanny’, he describes it as the unpleasant, uneasy feeling we can get when we look at an object or apparition we recognise, but something about it is wrong. That’s why waxworks in horror films inspire such dread. We recognise the figures as humanoid (for instance, they have 2 arms and 2 legs), yet at the same time there’s something that doesn’t make them fully human (in this case, they’re not alive).


The same theory has been applied to robotics, and Ai-Da falls into this. She makes art like an artist. But she isn’t one. Is she? Do you have to be human to be an artist? She looks like a human, but we know she isn’t. Or can she be, because she makes art? These questions disconcert the viewer on a primal basis. There’s a clench in the very bottom of our stomachs that we are unlikely to admit to. Do we want to live in a world filled with unsettling cyborgs?


Meller himself says, ‘I think this is controversial, it feels somehow wrong that Ai-Da even exists. There’s something not quite right in talking to a machine that looks like a human. When you apply that to the artwork it gets even more profound: what are we doing looking at art created by a machine that is supposed to talk to the human spirit?’ 

Cadeau (Gift), 1921, Man Ray (copyright of image not held by us)
Lobster Telephone, 1938, Salvador Dalí (copyright of image not held by us)


The Surrealists were borderline obsessed with this theory. They saw the uncanny everywhere. The clothes mannequins in shop windows were uncanny. Salvador Dalí’s lobster phone was uncanny. Man Ray’s iron full of nails, titled Gift, was horribly uncanny. But although their objects can disturb, or in some cases simply amuse, none of these objects was teetering on the precipice A.I. robotics are. No one was going to crowbar a lobster phone into everybody’s life. No one was at risk of losing jobs to lobster phones, or be spied on by lobster phones.


The founder of Surrealism, André Breton, described his movement as a ‘psychic automatism’ that intended to express ‘the actual functioning of thought’. Well the Surrealists – for all their amazing art – didn’t discover exactly how our minds work. No one has completely. But what if robots do it first… and will we still care about the art world if that happens? 


Ai-Da will display these talents in her show ‘Leaping into the Metaverse’ at the upcoming 59th Venice Bienalle on the 23rd of April 2022 alongside her collection of artworks so far. For more details please visit her website.

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