Portrait of the rat as a robot artist
An expatriate Israeli talks about the interest generated by his creation of 64 neurons attached to a mechanical arm that draws
All of the robots are taking part in the ArtBots exhibition, during which a talent show for young robots will be held. The media's attention this year is fixated on a special combination of a robot that is connected to 64 neurons that were taken from the brain of a rat. The robot has three colored pencils in its hand and the neurons guide him about how and what to draw on a piece of paper. The progenitor of this rodent-robotic fusion is an Israel, Guy Ben-Ary, 35, who lives in Australia and is a lawyer by profession and says: "I am really an artist?"
The combination of robots and art is not new. Back in 1959, the artist Akira Kanayama exhibited drawings made by means of a four-wheeled robot that was operated by remote control. In the 1970s and 1980s, films and books appeared that described a world in which robots were full-fledged citizens.
"I believe that one of the functions of the artist is to respond to events that take place in the society in which he lives," Ben-Ary said in an interview from New York. "I understand that the biotechnological revolution is not going to go away, and therefore I am trying to generate a social discussion centering around the question of what attitude to take toward these creatures, which in the future will have behavior and moods of their own and the ability to process information and to learn. Will we treat them like pets or like a table?"
Ben-Ary was born in the U.S. and moved to Israel with his parents at the age of two. After his army service, he studied law at Tel Aviv University. However, in the apprenticeship stage, he realized that the legal sphere didn't interest him. Two of his friends, Oron Catts and Yonat Tzur, who were studying at the University of Western Australia, invited him to visit. "They didn't believe I would come, but within three months I was there, and I've been there ever since," he said.
In the first six years, Ben-Ary said, he and his friends examined different combinations of science and art. Among other projects, the three set up a unique laboratory that supplies interested artists with scientific tools for their art work. A few years ago he began to engage in tissue engineering and since then has grown "live sculptures" from tissues, which were exhibited in Paris, Australia and New York. "We travel around the world, attend exhibitions and have a great time," he summed up delightedly.
The professors he met with, Ben-Ary said, were receptive to his and his friends' mad ideas and acceded to their request to make use of scientific equipment at the university for art purposes. Australian state institutions also reacted positively to his ideas, and he was awarded several scholarships. "The budget distribution in Australia is different," he noted. "They don't spend a lot of money on planes, so they have more funds for art."
When he started out, Ben-Ary photographed tissues through a microscope and presented them as pictures in every respect. "It was nice but not very interesting," he recalled, "because, in the end, what you had in hand were pretty pictures and that's all."
In 2001, he took a step forward and began to record the electric signals that the neurons in the brains of goldfish emit. The signals were transmitted to a robotic arm, which was instructed to draw according to the signals it received. He called the project "Fish and Chips." Ben-Ary: "The idea behind `Fish and Chips' was to prove a concept: the fish were doing the drawing. Beyond that, the idea that fish neurons were the coming artists of the 21st century amused us. It was a technological attempt to react to the traditional art world."
The only problem, said Ben-Ary, was that the goldfish didn't produce meaningful signals, which resulted in anemic pictures.
Ben-Ary began to take an interest in scientific literature and to find ways to enliven his pictures. He heard about Dr. Steve Potter, a scientist from the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta. Potter has been working for a few years on developing techniques to grow neurons in a laboratory in a petri dish with the aim of examining the behavior of the neurons that were connected to each other in a biological network. To that end, he uses neurons that are removed from the brains of rats and examines now only how each individual neuron reacts to a stimulus, but how the neurons behave as a biological network.
He therefore developed a technology that makes it possible to grow the neurons on a base to which are attached electrodes controlled by a software program. It sends stimuli to the neurons, and by means of a sophisticated recording technology registers the electrical reactions that are received from them. Ben-Ary decided to get in touch with Potter and tell him about his fish project.
"Two hours after I sent an e-mail message, he called me," related Ben-Ary. "He said that what we were doing complemented his work, as we had connected neurons to a robot that was executing an interpretation of the signals, whereas he was only measuring them. He came to see us in Australia, and we started to cooperate."
Keeping the neurons alive
Their cooperation resulted in a robot called MEART, which is connected to rat neurons with the aim of drawing people's portraits. The connection goes like this: Potter prepared a network of electrodes on which the neurons are placed. At the same time, Ben-Ary photographs the faces of people who visit his gallery, using a simple Internet camera. The photograph is made of thousands of pixels (dots), but by means of the computer it is reduced to 64 pixels so that it will fit the size of the network. The result is black , white and gray smudges that hardly resemble anyone?s face.
The team's point of departure is that the blacker the dot, the greater the electrical impulse that has to be transmitted to the neuron. The reaction of the neuron, which is in Atlanta, is transmitted via the Internet to the robotic arm in the University of Western Australia, which moves in the appropriate direction and begins to draw. For example, if a strong electric stimulus is transmitted (representing a black dot) to the neuron at the bottom right corner of the network, the neuron will respond and the information will be transmitted to the robotic arm, which will move to the lower right corner of the page, where it will begin to draw.
When the drawing in that area is completed, the program carries out a comparison between the drawing and the original pixel. If it is pleased with the result (that is, if the area is colored similarly to the color that exists in the original pixel), it transmits a stimulus to another neuron, which in reaction moves the robotic arm to another area and continues the drawing. According to Ben-Ary, the robotic arm knows how to lift the pencils from the page in the way that humans draw.
The final result, it has to be said, in no way recalls a human face. Most of the results bring to mind various geometric shapes, such as diamonds. Lev-Ari, though, feels no need to apologize: "I don?t think the neurons are drawing faces. They don't know what a face is, and in any event the neurons don't even know they are drawing. But neurons can learn, that's why they exist," he said.
In any event, Ben-Ary is not after realism. "It doesn't really matter if we see a face or not. The drawings made by the robot are abstract, they are conceptual, and that is fine, as far as we are concerned. What's important for us is to examine whether we are capable of deconstructing art down to the level of the individual neuron."
An additional gain, he added, is the discussion his work generates. "Someone is handling these neurons, someone is feeding them, ensuring that they remain alive. Is this how we will behave in the future toward the hybrid creatures that will fill the world?"