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Programmed 'Arm' Rivals Artist's Hand

AARON is a tour de force of art, artificial intelligence, and robotics

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1995



BOSTON

AFTER all the accomplishments of artist Harold Cohen with and without computers, the big question still remains: Will computers be able to ''think'' someday, and create original works of art?

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''Yes,'' says the bearded Mr. Cohen. Watching the noisy robotic arm of AARON slowly outline the elongated face of a woman on paper, he says, ''I don't think there is any doubt that at some point we will see computer programs that are capable of deciding for themselves not just what to draw, but what drawing means.''

If true, Cohen will deserve a big round of E-mail applause for his part in the evolution from the intelligence of human-hand drawing to a different kind of ''intelligence'' in computer drawing.

Cohen is the creator of AARON, a sophisticated knowledge-based computer program connected to a robotic arm that autonomously draws human shapes and plants. AARON is having its debut as a working exhibition at the Computer Museum in Boston, where visitors can watch it make paintings -- one each day.

For the last six years Cohen has been the director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at the University of California at San Diego.

In 1968 he had a ''reputation as a painter equal to that of any British artist of his generation,'' according to Michael Compton, Keeper of Modern Painting at London's Tate Gallery. But a two-year visit to Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory launched his exploration of the intersection of computers and art.

Introducing AARON to color

AARON is the result of 23 years of Cohen's research and development. (Cohen says he has spent about $150,000 bringing AARON to this point.)

''What I have done is to give AARON a significant body of knowledge,'' he says. ''For instance, it knows how a body is put together, how to build a representation of a body, and how that body moves.''

''AARON knows some of the things human beings know,'' Cohen says. ''And it can do some of the things humans do. The important thing to say is that I don't do any of the drawings. It does them.''

In simple terms, AARON is a computer program about as long as a good-sized novel. Connected to a robotic arm suspended over a huge flatbed covered with sheets of paper, it ''draws'' on command. It selects color too, dipping the fingerpoint of the robotic arm into little cups of fabric dye and filling in previously outlined human or plant shapes.

''I think AARON draws very well, and it has only started on its career as a colorist,'' Cohen says. ''To write the color program I had to find a way to represent color symbolically which allows AARON to mix dyes.''

The marvel here is that the sum of AARON is not a mere collection of facts. When it comes to ''life'' and plays back the sum of this knowledge -- all fed into it by Cohen -- many surprises occur in the drawings.

But is AARON making complex, esthetic decisions autonomously the way Cohen did when he was a highly regarded abstract painter in England?

Yes and no.

''AARON is really quite inventive,'' Cohen says, ''but I don't mean to suggest that it knows it is being inventive. I still regard it as a machine, but it will come up with some quite surprising compositions that human beings wouldn't do.

''AARON is autonomous to the degree that it is not going to ask me to hold its hand, or make a decision for it.'' Cohen says that what he has done is to educate an ''entity'' and thereby given it at least a different direction once it acts upon that education.

''There is no question in my mind that AARON has a personality,'' says Pamela McCorduck, author of ''AARON'S CODE: Meta-Art, Artificial Intelligence, and the Work of Harold Cohen.''

''AARON is consistent over all the drawings it has ever made,'' she says, ''it has a personal style.

''Is the machine thinking and doing art? It's not art as we know it, a human being taking up a brush and making representations on a piece of paper, but it is something at least as interesting,'' Ms. McCorduck says.

Computers 'not just for rockets and war'

But are the marks, lines, and colors that AARON leaves on paper worthy of being evaluated as art?

''My conviction is that Harold has done something that is absolutely esthetically unique,'' McCorduck says, ''and will be looked upon in the future for the incredible achievement that it is. I'm surprised that it doesn't get as much attention as I think it deserves, because [Cohen's] work raises the most interesting questions, which is what art should do.''

''People should see what AARON does with pleasure and wonder, and an awareness that computers are not just useful for launching rockets or war games,'' Cohen says. ''They are capable of contributing something to the finer aspects of life. I'm quite happy that AARON produces images that are open, generous, available; and still contributes to the dialogue on the nature of art the way that modernism never did.''

* 'AARON in Living Color' continues at the Computer Museum in Boston through May 29.