What happens when a robot becomes an art critic?

A robot is roaming the halls of a Parisian museum, judging art

At MWC 2016, Google’s Creative Lab revealed a smart little tool that automatically sketches out portraits based on photographs. The art critic Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, didn’t make much of the pen-wielding robot arm’s efforts.

“Maybe robots can replace bad portrait art,” he said. “They can squat on the pavement outside the National Gallery, drawing quick pictures of tourists. Their ‘portraits’ will be lifeless and banal.”

Jones may rail against the idea of a robot Rembrandt, but what if such criticisms were themselves manufactured by a machine? Paris' Musée du quai Branly asks that question with Berenson, a scarf-wearing robot art critic that roams the Persona: Oddly Human exhibition, dealing out opinions. 

Berenson – designed by robotics engineer Philippe Gaussier and anthropologist Denis Vidal – approaches exhibits in the museum and either smiles or frowns. It comes to this decision, firstly, by watching other people in the exhibition and analysing their facial expressions. These reactions are then sorted into positive and negative, and fed into a neural network simulator named Prométhé.

Prométhé allows Berenson to pick up on various visual stimuli, and build an impression of what makes a “positive” or “negative” object. If it’s faced with a positive and negative object, it will move towards the positive object and smile. If it’s stuck with a negative object, it will move towards it, frown, and move away.  

Robot critics for robot art

Berenson is named after the American art critic Bernard Berenson, and is dressed up to look like a 19th-century aesthete complete with hat, coat and scarf. Should contemporary critics such as Jonathan Jones be worried about their jobs? Only if you think the job of the critic is to regurgitate public opinion, selecting pieces based on popularity and emotional effect. This is in many ways the very opposite of a critic’s job, but it touches on the way Twitter, Google et al surface trending pages.

Here’s a pointless vision of the future for you: robot critics judging robot art – machines squatting on the pavement outside the National Gallery, “optimising” their art for Berenson’s algorithms as he smiles or frowns at their efforts.

It would be a ridiculous performance. Both Berenson and Google’s sketch artists are designed to mimic a human idea of what art is. Robot art, if that concept were ever to exist, would be utterly incomprehensible to humans.

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