Can You Tell Whether a Robot or an Artist Painted This Portrait?

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Nov. 15 2012 12:32 PM

How Robots Saved an Artist’s Sanity

The greatest artist of his generation is named Paul.

Robotic Portrait of Patrick Tresset
Robotic Portrait of Patrick Tresset

For much of his life, Patrick Tresset has been torn between art and technology. The child of an artist and an engineer, Tresset dabbled in both during his youth in France and enjoyed tinkering with the “primitive” computer his family got when he was 10. In college, he eschewed art in favor of studying business computing. After graduating, however, he “found it boring” and pivoted back to art—painting, in particular.  

For the next decade, Tresset tried to make it as a painter. Occasionally, he was successful, exhibiting his work in Paris and London. But “along the way, I kind of lost touch with reality. … I kind of lost my ability to function in society,” he said last weekend at a press conference at Ciudad de las Ideas, an annual gathering about big ideas held in Puebla, Mexico, and sponsored by Grupo Salinas.

In his 30s, Tresset made the admirable and difficult decision to seek treatment for his mental health problems—and for him, medication and therapy worked. There was just one problem. “I was able to function again … but I lost my passion for art, for doing things by hand,” he said.

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The connection between creativity and mental illness is complicated and has received a lot of attention—for instance, in Kay Redfield Jamison’s excellent Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, published in 1993. Jamison writes in the introduction:

"[T]here is some evidence that as a group, artists and writers disproportionately seek out psychiatric care; certainly many—including Byron, Schumann, Tennyson, Fitzgerald, and Lowell—repeatedly sought help from their physicians. Other writers and artists stop taking their medications because they miss the highs or the emotional intensity associated with their illness, or because they feel the drug side effects interfere with the clarity and rapidity of their thought or diminish their levels of enthusiasm, emotion, and energy."

The latter group seems to be the one that receives more attention—indeed, society seems to revere the mentally ill artist, seeing her as sacrificing her sanity for the greater good. If van Gogh had been healthy, this narrative goes, maybe he wouldn’t have produced such masterpieces.

Tresset, for one, discovered a novel way to stay mentally healthy with the help of drugs and still pursue what was once his life’s work: He created robots that can draw portraits. Far from a mere novelty, his research is telling us more about both the creative process in humans and how we relate emotionally to machines.

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