Meet "Paul" and "Pete," The Sketching Robots

<p>Patrick Tresset has created machines that can draw your portrait.</p>

Imagine a time when our greatest living artist is an automaton. Sure, that could be long way off, it might never happen, but robotics isn’t only being used for manufacturing products for commercial consumption anymore, it’s also being used to manufacture art. A world where robots make art is no longer just a product of the sweat-drenched dreams of drug-addled sci-fi writers—it’s something that’s happening all around us. Whether it be the industrial robots used by German collective robotlab for their installations and performances, or Czech artist Fredrico Diaz and his robotically built sculpture, robots are exercising their creative potential with abandon. A recent addition to the trend is a robotic sketcher that can draw a person’s portrait.

Artist and researcher Patrick Tresset, the creator of the sketching robots, is currently in residence at the Tenderpixel gallery in London, which is displaying two of his works. His research (together with Professor Frederic Fol Leymarie, a fellow researcher from the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London), has led to the creation of “Paul” a robotic sketcher—who will be drawing the portraits of the gallery patrons who come see it—and “Peter”, a perpetual drawing/erasing machine. Smudging the already brackish line between art, robotics and computing, “Paul” is a robotic drawing arm that sketches people using a mechanical eye and “imperfectly simulates a small part of Tresset’s abilities.” Wanting to find out more, we sent Tresset a few questions via email so he could further explain this most recent incarnation of his ongoing robotics research.

The Creators Project: Can you explain a little about what the installation is and how it works?
Patrick Tresset:
With the sketcher, titled “Paul,” I use some of the technology I developed in the context of the Aikon-II research project. It’s a project hosted in the computing department at Goldsmiths college where we investigate the sketching activity through computational modeling. I co-direct this project with Prof. Frederic Fol Leymarie. I develop all the software that drives the robot using current research from computer vision, cognitive computing and robotics. I use languages such as Urbiscript, Python, and frameworks such as ROS and various libraries such as OpenCV and others. The current system on show starts by looking for a person with its motorized eye, then when a person is found, it focuses on him or her. Then it draws salient lines that are picked up by some computational cells (Gabor filter), which have responses that are equivalent to the cells we have in our early visual cortex (V1). Then it does some form of shading.

The second robotic piece on show, “Peter,” perpetually draws marks then erases them to pass time. It has a camera that picks up activity in the room, so depending on the activity and other factors, it gets bored or excited. Its mood influences the speed at which it counts—sometimes it gets too excited, sometimes too depressed—then it does unexpected things.

Paul the robot drawing its master.

What was the idea behind the project? What were you looking to explore?
With this exhibition, and more generally with my artistic activity, I am interested in exploring the relation people have with robots. I especially am trying to create little pieces of “theatre” that touch people. I would say that I am inspired by Jacques Tati, Samuel Beckett and Antoine de Saint Exupery.

Is it learning?
Not this version, but by the end of the year, it will be.

Should human artists be worried?
I am still the author, and I do not believe that art is competitive…

Peter the robot passing time…

Where do you see this automation of art heading?
Art is art however it is made…

What’s the next development for the Aikon Project?
I do believe that drawing is a very good skill for domestic robots to have, as drawing is somewhat a socializing skill. And I think that robots will have problems being accepted because they will seem a bit autistic.

New Work by Patrick Tresset is at Tenderpixel, 10 Cecil Court, London, from now until July 9, 2011.