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.

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.

You may have already seen one of Tresset’s robots—all of them in this generation are named Paul. In July 2011, video of one sketching its master as part of an exhibit at London’s Tenderpixel went viral. The Pauls are in action once again in a video from October, when they were exhibited at the MERGE Festival in the United Kingdom.

Tresset’s robots use computer vision to identify their subjects—they can recognize faces—and then they spend about 30 minutes on each portrait. (One of his earlier-generation robots, Pete, will actually doodle when there are no faces in sight to draw.) The early versions were crude and involved not physical robots but simulated drawing created with computer-aided drafting programs. But over the past 10 years or so, Tresset and Frederic Fol Leymarie, his co-director at the Aikon project at Goldsmiths University of London, have made tremendous progress. Can you tell which image below was made by a computer and which was created by Tresset before he lost his inspiration?

Sketches by Patrick and Robot Paul
On the left is a sketch by Patrick Tresset. On the right is a sketch by the robot Paul.

Robots face some of the same problems in learning to draw as humans do, Tresset says. “When we draw, the difficulty is not in making the lines. The difficulty is in the perception of the subject and the perception of the drawing in progress.” But sometimes, it may help to make it seem that the robot has difficulty in making the lines—Tresset has found that people feel more empathy for the machines when they make human-esque mistakes like crooked or tilted lines. (He calls this “clumsy robotics.”) Humans are inclined to want to identify with robots, especially those with faces: Give a person a bot, and he or she will probably name it. But why is that connection important in robots that draw? Tresset believes that if the person being sketched feels something for the machine wielding the pen, he or she will find the 30-minute sketching process “more touching.” Plus, if the sitter assigns a personality to the robot, it might alter the human’s emotional response to the final product.

Most of us still don’t have robots in the home, but for decades now, we’ve been waiting for machines to do our bidding. Tresset believes that  it might be a good idea to imbue all personal robots with some sort of artistic skill to encourage an emotional bond—it might allow for more trust, perhaps, though you can also see how overly identifying with a machine might create some existential questions.

Another project that Tresset has begun work on recently might have more immediately apparent benefits: using Paul-like technology to help those with limited or no use of their limbs to create art. When Tresset lost his own passion for painting, his robots became “a kind of prosthetic for my loss of sensibility,” he told me in an email after the meeting. “[C]reativity can be a great help to overcome sadness, depression, and solitude.”

In recent years, the age-old discussion about whether technology diminishes our humanity has grown increasingly shrill. Yet Tresset demonstrates how, when built and implemented thoughtfully, technology can instead enhance humanity. Many people in his position 10 years ago would have simply let go of their passion for art—or even given up the medication and treatment for the sake of retaining that inspiration. He, however, found another path.

Disclosure: The Azteca Foundation, the foundation arm of the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Salinas, provided funding for my trip to Ciudad de las Ideas.