Meet Agnieszka Pilat: The artist creating portraits for the machines of the future

Agnieszka Pilat, a visionary Polish artist, goes beyond creating art solely for human appreciation. Her primary focus lies in delighting the machines of the future, specially the very robots and artificial intelligence that will shape it.

"My aspiration is that in 100 years from now, advanced intelligent machines, and the AI of the future, will examine the portraits I have created," she explains.

"And they'll look at them and think "These are our ancestors". That's how I want to be remembered."

As a self-proclaimed "techno-optimist," Pilat embraces the positive potential of technology and believes that all artists should actively engage with it.

Currently, Pilat is in the process of training three robot dogs, which will make their artistic debut at the National Gallery in December.

This departure from her usual Silicon Valley-centric audience signifies Pilat's eagerness to share her outsider perspective with the broader art world.

Drawing inspiration from her classical painting background and her formative years in Poland during the waning years of the Cold War, Pilat's artistic vision has already garnered recognition beyond traditional art circles.

Two of her paintings even found their way into the latest instalment of the iconic Matrix film series, 'Matrix Resurrection.'

We had the privilege of sitting down with Pilat to discuss her highly-anticipated upcoming exhibition, her experience collaborating with Boston Dynamic robots and gain insights into her perspectives on the ever-evolving landscape of the art world.

Credit: 2020, Aaron Richter
Pilat walking outside alongside a Boston Dynamic robot dog - Credit: 2020, Aaron Richter

Euronews Culture: You have an upcoming major exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Could you give us a sneak peek of what you have planned for this?

Agnieszka Pilat: So the exhibition opens in December and my presentation is we come to a really empty gallery, white cube, and all the work is being done during the exhibition.

So the first day you come in, we're going to have three robots, three Boston Dynamics robot dogs. And each day they're going to be creating a painting.So. So by the end of the exhibition, it's going to be full salon style, filled with our robots' paintings.

Could you explain the process of how you train these Boston Dynamics robots to create paintings?

So I work with a team of engineers. I myself I'm not a programmer, so these are very high level problem.

So what I do, I design what I want the robots to draw. And then our engineer codes it in to the robot.

But what happens in this process is there is this what's called in engineering a "black box". There are moments that we really can't figure out how the machine executes these images. And that's kind of a moment of magic or ghost in the machine that excites me.

How should ownership of a piece of art created by robots be determined? Is it solely attributed to the robot as the creator, or does it also belong to the human artist overseeing its creation?

It's a collaboration. That said, I come from a background of classical portraiture, and I have always been taught to consider the age of the subject when I work with a sitter. I view my relationship with the subject as a starting point. Since the subject's age (the robots) is often that of a young child, I approach our collaboration as a schooling process.

Currently, I am following the tradition of artists from the past who learned from a master. In this case, I am the master, and the machine is learning to emulate my style.

However, I am not using a random algorithm or allowing the machine to hallucinate, as that is the technical term used in language models. Instead, the machine is executing instructions provided by me without any form of hallucination.

What is your relationship like with these robot dogs? Do you feel a sense of human connection with them?

Yes, it's kind of weird, but even though I don't have kids, I get very emotionally attached to the robots.

In fact, the first robot I met a few years ago at Boston Dynamics was a brand new, beautiful one, and I actually came there to paint a portrait of it. But when I returned, I found out that it had been sold and dropped out of sight in some industrial plant.

Today, I still feel a yearning to find and save that robot, and bring it back home.

You sometimes take these dogs out for walks in public. How do people react to them?

So there are two distinct reactions. In person, there is usually a lot of curiosity and many questions, often coming from individuals with limited knowledge about robots. I always assume that everyone is familiar with them, but in reality, many people have not yet seen them.

Nonetheless, the general feeling is one of wonder and curiosity, with people wanting to take selfies with the robots, making the encounter quite real.

On the other hand, when there is a video recording, someone always ends up filming it, and it often goes viral on the internet. This creates a different experience, with a critical and sometimes even violent tone.

It provides a unique insight into how human behavior differs in real life versus online, almost like a Rorschach test, revealing a lot about a person's character based on their reaction to the robot in both contexts.

Why do you think artists should embrace and adapt to AI and new technologies for their creative processes?

I definitely think that artists need to be early adapters. Technology is generally where the progress happens. With art we're allowed to experiment with everything that's new on a smaller scale and a scale that doesn't have such huge consequences.

So I think it's extremely important for artists to engage with technology. Not are scared of it. Try to have an objective approach and see how it can be used both as a tool and also for pushing humanity's progress to the direction that we want.

We are entering the moment leaning heavily into AI and especially prompt to image, and video to image. We're entering into a fascinating place and as much as it causes a lot of problems, I think it's a super cool moment in history to be an artist right now.

Overall I think something wonderful is going to come out of it.

How would you like to be remembered in 100 years?

You know when you go to a museum, you're in London and you go to the National Portrait Gallery, and you look at portraits of old aristocracy. And many people , especially the British, connect with them, considering them as their cultural ancestors.

In a similar manner, my aspiration is that in 100 years from now, advanced intelligent machines, and the AI of the future, will examine the portraits I have created. My portraits of Spot, old machines, and Space X. And they'll look at them and think "These are our ancestors".

Check out the video in the web player above to see our chat with Agnieszka Pilat.