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Sketching the future

Photo: Jason Borg

Photo: Jason Borg

Inventor Patrick Tresset created his first sketching machine when he was just eight years old. He has now upgraded to Silvio the sketching robot. Rachel Agius meets man and machine.

The first encounter between Patrick Tresset and a computer happened when he was eight years old. Around that same time, Tresset designed his first drawing machine, a creation made from Lego that used a roll of paper and a pen to write in Morse code.

“Although I was always interested in computers, robotics was never my main interest, until now. I used to think it was too time-consuming,” Tresset explains.

In fact, Tresset, who nowadays assists St Martin’s Institute of IT in the creative development of students, did not originally study computing. He spent some years producing his own artwork but later, by his own admission, lost his passion for it.

Returning to the world of technology, he read for a Masters at Goldsmiths, University of London and is now reading for a Ph.D. – in the process, he found that robots were exactly what his project needed.

“The idea of science and art being completely removed from each other is mostly down to public perception,” Tresset says. “However, they are not as distant as people think.”

In creating Paul the sketching robot, Tresset combined his love for painting with the world of artificial intelligence and robotics into a project which would make science geeks and art lovers alike swoon.

Supported by the Leverhulme Trust grant, Tresset set out to create and code a robot that could imagine the reality we, as humans, perceive. The project aims to study the science of perception and how people draw from observation.

This is where Silvio, who is in the room with us, comes in. Silvio is a newly finished copy of Paul, a robot that is currently being exhibited in Soho, London.

“This one is made for the exhibition. I was focusing more on the result rather than the scientific process behind it. The research version is more intelligent as it can learn and correct itself,” Tresset explains as he types away at the laptop hooked up to the robot.

But the creator has no fanciful ideas about his creation.

“Robots are dumb – giving them skills makes them seem smarter than they are. They do not create but can have artistic skill and individuality,” he says. The same, he feels, applies to people.

“There is perception, certainly, and skill, which is better in some. But by creating art, people are simply reproducing what they see through the lens of their own individual perception.”

Through a set of algorithms and with reinforcement learning, a concept familiar to the field of psychology, robots can learn. However, because of the unpredictable nature of Silvio’s learning, Tresset says that the robot has surprised him a few times.

“Robots are complex and unpredictable. It is impossible to foresee all the eventualities and boundaries they might encounter. There is a lot of trial and error.”

At first glance, Silvio is rather simple. A mechanical arm holding a ballpoint pen and a camera – perched atop a small post wrapped with cables – sits above a blank piece of paper pinned to a wooden board. Using boundary recognition technology, the image picked up by the camera is processed by the computer, picking out the outline of facial features.

It’s time for a demonstration. After the prerequisite reluctance to function, which seems to affect every computer user to varying degrees, laptop and camera are coaxed into cooperating.

I watch as the camera looks for a face, mechanical clicks punctuating its movements. It settles on Tresset’s face and gets to work. The arm swings wildly over the paper, clutching its pen tightly as it begins drawing seemingly disconnected lines.

“It takes between 20 and 30 minutes to draw a good picture. If it is given less time, the results are not as accurate,” Tresset explains. Disconcertingly, the camera turns around, watching itself draw for a while before it returns to scrutinising its subject. Slowly, the apparently random lines begin to join up and a face emerges, crude but recognisable, from the scribbles.

Robots have become more common in our lives and homes. From household appliances to industrial labour, robotics has left the realm of science fiction. Of course, artificial consciousness is still far away so there is no danger that the next Picasso will be made of nuts and bolts.

However, with increasing interest from investors, they are receiving more attention by way of research.

Tresset predicts a surge in the presence of robots and artificial intelligence in our lives within the next decade. Another element of Tresset’s study revolves around the relationship between humans and robots. Peter, another creation of Tresset’s currently on display in London, has moods, dictated by the level of activity around it in the exhibition hall which in turn determines the robot’s actions.

Although they are, in essence, cables and code, it is easy to personify these robots by giving them names and assigning them human emotions and capabilities.

By giving robots skills such as drawing, the world of technology has moved closer to the human world. And while they may still look metallic and forbidding, their capacity for learning and correcting their mistakes is turning robots less alien and more like us than we could imagine.

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