arts and design

Egypt detains artist robot Ai-Da before historic pyramid show

She’s 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 – has hit a snag: Egyptian security forces have detained her before an exhibition at the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Ai-Da is due to open and present her work at the exhibition on Thursday, the first time contemporary art has been allowed next to the pyramid in its 4,500-year history.

But because of “security issues” that may include concerns she is part of a wider espionage plot, both Ai-Da and her sculpture have been held in Egyptian customs for the past 10 days, sparking a diplomatic fracas unlike many that have come before it.

“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. “It’s really stressful.”

According to Meller, border guards detained Ai-Da at first because she had a modem, and then because she had cameras in her eyes (which she uses to draw and paint). “I can ditch the modems but I can’t really gouge her eyes out,” he said.

Both Ai-Da and her sculpture had been sent in specialised flight cases by air cargo to Cairo before the Forever Is Now exhibition, which runs until 7 November and is presented by the consultancy firm Art D’Égypte in partnership with the Egyptian ministry of antiquities and tourism and the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs. The exhibition will showcase works by leading Egyptian and international artists including Stephen Cox, Lorenzo Quinn, Moataz Nasr and Alexander Ponomarev.

Ai-Da’s 2 x 2.5-metre 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. 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 nought if we can’t get her released.”

Named after the computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da was built by a team of programmers, roboticists, art experts and psychologists. The multimillion-pound project was completed in 2019 and is updated as AI technology improves.

The robot’s artwork, including “the first self-portrait with no self” has been displayed at the Design Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and she has previously spoken to the Guardian about her own inspirations.

Meller, an Oxford gallerist, said 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. 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: “We’re well aware that the fictions of 1984 and Brave New World are now facts. AI is developing rapidly. For the first time tens of thousands of graduates will have degrees in machine learning. The supercomputer can use vast data and process extraordinary algorithms. We predict by 2025 there will be big disruption with technology, and Ai-Da is trying to use art to bring attention to that.”

Meller thanked the British embassy and Art d’Égypte “for the amazing work they are putting in to get Ai-Da released”.

The British embassy in Cairo was contacted for comment.


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