She has been described as “a vision of the future” who is every bit as good as other abstract artists today, but Ai-Da — the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist — hit a temporary snag before her latest exhibition when Egyptian security forces detained her at customs.
Ai-Da was yesterday due to open and present her work at the Great Pyramid of Giza, the first time that contemporary art has been allowed next to the pyramid in thousands of years.
However, because of “security issues” — which might include concerns that she is part of a wider espionage plot — Ai-Da and her sculpture were held in Egyptian customs for 10 days before being released on Wednesday, sparking a diplomatic fracas.
“The British ambassador has been working through the night to get Ai-Da released, but we’re right up to the wire now,” said Aidan Meller, the human force behind Ai-Da, shortly before her release.
“It’s really stressful,” Meller added.
Border guards at first detained Ai-Da because she had a modem, and then because she had cameras in her eyes — which she uses to draw and paint, Meller said.
“I can ditch the modems, but I can’t really gouge her eyes out,” he said.
She was finally cleared through customs on Wednesday evening, hours before the exhibition was due to start, with the British embassy in Cairo saying that it was “glad” the case had been resolved.
Ai-Da and her sculpture had been sent in specialized flight cases by air cargo to Cairo before the Forever Is Now exhibition, which runs until Nov. 7 and is presented by the consultancy firm Art d’Egypte in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The exhibition showcases works by leading Egyptian and international artists, including Stephen Cox, Lorenzo Quinn, Moataz Nasr and Alexander Ponomarev.
Ai-Da’s 2m x 2.5m sculpture is a play on the riddle of the sphinx — “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three feet in the evening?” — the answer to which is a human.
“Four legs is when you’re a toddler, two legs is when you’re an adult, and three is when you’re elderly and need a walking stick,” Meller said.
“So Ai-Da produced an enormous version of herself with three legs,” he said. “We’re saying that, actually, with the new Crispr technology coming through and the way we can do gene editing today, life extension is actually very likely.”
“The ancient Egyptians were doing exactly the same thing with mummification. Humans haven’t changed: We still have the desire to live forever, but all of that comes to naught if we can’t get her released,” Meller said.
Named after the computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da was built by a team of programmers, roboticists, art experts and psychologists. The multimillion-dollar project was completed in 2019 and is updated as AI technology improves.
The robot’s work, including her “first self-portrait with no self,” has been displayed at the Design Museum in London.
Meller, an Oxford gallerist, said that he always hoped his project would prompt debate about the rapid rise of AI technology.
“She is an artist robot, let’s be really clear about this. She is not a spy,” Meller said. “People fear robots, I understand that, but the whole situation is ironic, because the goal of Ai-Da was to highlight and warn of the abuse of technological development, and she’s being held because she is technology.”
“Ai-Da would appreciate that irony, I think,” he added.
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