Robotic art: Is it talent or technology?

The art show in the Johns Hopkins Mattin Center was winding down. The submissions -- 24 original works on paper -- had been carefully laid out on the floor of the judging chamber. Now it was time to pick a winner.

One judge nodded approvingly at a paint-splattered study in red and orange a la Jackson Pollock. Another eyed three boldly drawn diamonds in red, yellow and blue. "I love the pri-mary-color concept," he said.


But, in the end, it was a wispy Japanese-style sumi-e of an orchid that captured the blue ribbon.

Not bad for a bunch of robots. In this unusual marriage of art and technology, more than 50 Hopkins University student engineers built machines capable of spraying and splattering, dripping and scribbling, sketching and dribbling on paper. The robots showed off their artistic prowess -- and occasional design flaws -- at a one-of-a-kind public art show Monday on the Homewood campus.


Allison Okamura, an instructor in Hopkins' mechanical engineering department, devised the project to help teach her students the fundamentals of robot design. But the effort also touched on a question that a small but growing number of professional artists and engineers are debating: Is it possible for a machine to create art?

"The robot itself may be art, or the thing that the robots create may be the art," Okamura says. "The definition of art is so open ended."

Painters and sculptors have been grappling with the question since the 1960s, when a few pioneers started to dabble with computers and other machines. More recently, as robotics technology has grown more affordable, the number of efforts to meld the disciplines is slowly growing.

"There's all this strange stuff being done," says Douglas Repetto, who organizes an annual exhibition of robotic art called ArtBots: The Robot Talent Show.

Last year, for example, a team of artists and scientists from Georgia Tech and the University of Western Australian wired marker-wielding robotic arms to a petri dish full of disembodied rodent brain cells. When the neurons fired, the action caused the three arms to move, producing a series of chaotic scribbles.

But not all robotic works are so abstract.

One of the best-known machine artists is AARON, a painting robot developed by British artist Harold Cohen.

Cohen has spent more than three decades filling AARON's computer brain with everything from the rules of perspective and color to knowledge of what a human face looks like.


A professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, Cohen began work on the robot in 1973. Six years later, AARON had its first exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Today the robot's impressionist portraits and still-lifes fetch up to $25,000 and hang in museums such as the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Western Australia and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The annual ArtBots show, meanwhile, displays some of the latest thinking on the marriage of art and technology. This year's exposition, held in September in New York City, featured 20 works from seven countries. Entrants ranged from a robotic sculpture of a glacier, created by the same team that developed the robotic drill for NASA's twin Mars rovers, to a four-stringed guitar capable of playing faster than any human.

Repetto said he organized the first ArtBots three years ago after noticing the popularity of television shows such as BattleBots, which featured homemade fighting robots. He wanted to make the point that there was more to robotics than "what power tool can I strap onto it and how many sparks can I make."

Although he says plans are already under way for next year's show in Dublin, Ireland, Repetto believes the future of robotics and art is unclear. "Who knows where it's going to go?" he says.

This week the Johns Hopkins engineering students found out just how difficult it can be to create an artistic machine. Many of the works of art could have graced kindergarten portfolios. Which raises the question: What is art, anyway?


"The aesthetic is so much in the eye of the beholder," says James Rouvelle, an artist who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art and served as a judge at the show.

Graduate students Kiju Lee and Wooram Park, who created the first-place robot, said it took weeks to build and program a machine capable of sketching a sumi-e style orchid. Sumi-e are deceptively simple Japanese drawings created with black ink and a brush.

Despite its popularity with the judges and crowd, Lee says she wasn't convinced that the machine (dubbed "Naan," Korean for orchid) actually created art. Especially because Naan's renderings changed little from one drawing to the next.

"To create the leaf, that's not art," says Lee, 25. "The software we designed -- that's the art."

But John Dickinson, a 22-year-old senior who developed two mouse-sized robots that scribble randomly on paper, said he wasn't so sure.

"There are people who take a blank canvas and put a dot on it and call it art," he says. Watching as his bots inked intricate patterns onto the paper, he continued talking. "I feel like I've walked into a gallery and seen things like this."


Repetto, the ArtBot organizer, said new technologies always push artists and scholars to rethink their definition of art. "If something touches you or compels you to think," he says, "do you really care if it's 'art' or not?"

By that definition, then you might also consider "Canada" to be a work of art. That's what Hopkins seniors Jimmy Ballew and Phil Nigon called their robot, which drew crowds eager to peek inside the machine's protective microwave-sized Plexiglas box.

When Ballew pushed a button, the robot sprayed a patch of green paint onto a sheet of paper lying at the bottom of the box. A toy fire hydrant, connected to a motorized spool of string, then dropped down onto this patch of "grass." Finally, a toy dog at the end of the robotic arm trotted out and deposited a pool of yellow paint where the hydrant sat.

The crowds always applauded. If this isn't art, Ballew said, what is? "Even when they're disgusted, they eventually laugh."

For more information on ArtsBots and AARON, visit and