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You Can Give A Robot A Paintbrush, But Does It Create Art?

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Pindar Van Arman in his studio with paintings created by his bitPaintr portrait-painting robot.
Craig Hudson
Pindar Van Arman in his studio with paintings created by his bitPaintr portrait-painting robot.

Whether you play an instrument, sing or sculpt, "everyone does some kind of art," Pindar Van Arman says.

Van Arman is a painter, but he's also a software designer. He has built a handful of machines and worked on a DARPA challenge team in California to build a self-driving car.

His latest project? A portrait-painting robot.

The concept is simple: A user uploads a picture, and the robot (a.k.a."bitPaintr") paints it.

The added bonus? Users can remotely jump into the software and join the robot to help it paint, whether that user is in the same room or 3,000 miles away.

BitPaintr's purpose isn't to replace the painter, but to help the painter — like a painting assistant. This is Van Arman's fifth robot in 10 years. Earlier versions included bulkier devices that produced a simpler painting and painting that used pre-written algorithms or followed user-generated coordinates that took too long.

Van Arman, 41, says bitPaintr paints totally on its own — as long as you want it to — and adds that it has developed its own style.

He likes how it's hard to distinguish whether bitPaintr's paintings, which start at $50, were created by a human or a robot. He says they "dance on the edge" of something in between.

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Van Arman, of Tysons Corner, Va., adds that he was never able to fully grasp his own, unique style as a painter.

"But my robot can," he says.

Though Van Arman is influenced by recent innovators like Matthew Stein of The PumaPaint Project and Ken Goldberg's The Telegarden, robotic painting first came into the picture in the early 1970s.

It started with AARON, software written by artist Harold Cohen, and has been evolving ever since.

So what is creativity, then, if a robot with a paintbrush can be — or appear to be — just as creative as a human with a paintbrush?

Mark Riedl, an associate professor at the Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing, says it depends on how you define creativity and its bounds.

"Anything that produces anything or solves a problem is undergoing a creative process. Solving a math problem is a creative process," he says. "[It's] not what most people think about when you ask whether computers are creative or not."

He says most people wouldn't think a GPS system is creative just because it found a new route home from work, but in reality, it is.

Riedl says there is creativity and Creativity ("small c" and "big c").

He says "creativity" has to do with everyday activity: the little things that we do hundreds of times in our daily lives; the things that could be creative, but usually aren't.

To be "Creative" is to have a spark and imagination that people get credit for on a societal level, he says — the Picassos and the Mozarts of the world; the people who have "produced something that's taken on this additional level of meaning."

Riedl says what robots create is far from human-level quality art, but he sees robots entering the creative process as a positive thing.

"It's my sense that we, as creative beasts, want the computers to keep up with us," he says.

And thanks to innovators like Van Arman, it seems like they will.

Although his friends joke that he has invented a "really expensive, slow, bad printer," Van Arman says teaching a machine how to be creative has helped him get to the bottom of what creativity is — and appreciate it.

"When you're trying to teach a machine to do something that's easy for humans, it really makes you sit back and see what humans are doing," he says.

Van Arman says he hopes to have a traveling exhibition in the near future.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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