Bowerbot
robotics, AI/ML
2023-ongoing
Watch my talk Bowerbirds: Optimization, The Evolution of Aesthetics, and Art in the Interspecies Internet Lecture Series.

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The Bowerbot is an interactive installation in which an industrial robot arm arranges colorful objects such as flowers, leaves, and trash simulating the way male bowerbirds arrange objects to attract a mate. Native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, their uniquely curatorial behavior has long fascinated ornithologists and evolutionary biologists, who cannot explain their creative process. Their creations are as difficult to understand as those of human artists. The tech world is attempting to automate human creativity through the use of artificial intelligence (e.g. Midjourney, ChatGPT). Bowerbot will use the same underlying technologies to simulate bowerbirds’ creative and curatorial processes. Visitors will offer Bowerbot objects, which it might accept or reject, to transform a “white cube” gallery space into a colorful composition. Bowerbot takes a critical and playful approach to expose how AI technologies attempt to simulate creativity, make decisions, and their limitations.

Male bowerbirds attract mates by constructing elaborate bowers (hut-like structures) and arranging colorful objects around them. Different birds choose and arrange objects in surprisingly different ways. Some might only collect blue objects and some only gray and white. Some might arrange objects into piles or gradients and some might use pops of orange and red. Their compositions demonstrate a sensitivity to scale, composition, texture, and the interaction of color. Their creations transcend easily measurable metrics like efficiency, quantity, and strength. If I were to try to write computer code to produce their compositions, I can’t see what metric I would optimize. Their behavior is still a source of scientific controversy, and so they are often described as the most artistic of all animals.

Recent developments in generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) have reignited the controversy around non-human art. Computer scientists are attempting to automate human creativity with AI black boxes (e.g. Midjourney, ChatGPT), and these systems have advanced enough that AI-generated artwork has fooled human juries into giving them awards. I too am using AI to simulate how male bowerbirds create. Is the metric for success simply fooling your audience? Advancements in both AI and robotics have made this project more feasible technically. This has also made the project more urgent as a future filled with robot and AI assistants looms closer.

We are being flooded with AI hype, and it can be impossible for even computer scientists to understand why AIs do what they do. AI black boxes will increasingly be used to govern aspects of our daily lives, sometimes harmlessly and other times with grave implications. This art installation will make AI more accessible by allowing visitors to witness and critically reflect on an AI-driven robot making decisions in front of them. This grant will allow the exploration of these technologies outside of the influence of military funding, capitalism’s fixation on profit optimization and efficiency, and the tech industry’s pervasive “bro culture”. Building an “AI bird artist” will allow people to consider the loaded topic of AIs simulating human creativity from a distance. The Bowerbot will provide people of disparate disciplines and vocabularies (STEM, arts, and a general audience) a vehicle to have a deeper and more nuanced conversation together about the future of AI, authorship, and non-human art.

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Thumbnail image licensed under Creative Commons
Image of bowerbird bower: Anonymous / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML188495711)