Robot dogs have unnerved and angered the public. So why is this artist teaching them to paint?

The artist is completely focused, a black oil crayon in her hand as she repeatedly draws a small circle on a vibrant teal canvas. She is unbothered by the three people closely observing her every movement, and doesn’t seem to register my entrance into this bright white room inside the National Gallery of Victoria.

The artist is a robot; more specifically, Basia is a 30kg “Spot” robot dog designed by Boston Dynamics. You’ve likely seen videos of these dogs opening doors, climbing stairs and decorating Christmas trees, while performing eerily fluid actions that cause people to write comments like, “Can’t wait to have a pack of these chase me through a post-apocalyptic urban hellscape!” The robots are designed to perform tasks that are dangerous for humans: they tend to be bought by mining and construction corporations, as well as police and the military. You may have also seen them enforcing social distancing in Singapore, delivering food to hostages during a home invasion in Queens, dancing in a baseball stadium in Japan, or even in an episode of The Book of Boba Fett. Now you can watch them paint.

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From next week, three Spots named Basia, Vanya and Bunny will begin a four month residency at the NGV’s Triennial in Melbourne, where they will be creating art in their purpose-built studio. It feels like a very clinical creche: there are docking stations where the robots “sleep” and recharge their batteries; little cubes of QR codes are scattered about like toys, telling the robots where they are in the space.

All of this is being overseen by Agnieszka Pilat, artist of choice among Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and a former artist in residence at SpaceX and Boston Dynamics. For years, Pilat has both painted tech and trained tech to paint. She is a self-described techno-optimist who loves the robots: she even lives with Basia, and takes her for walks around her neighbourhood in New York City.

“You know old cat ladies?” she says to me. “It is my dream to be an old robot lady. And 50 years from now, I think it’ll be possible.”

Not everyone loves the robots as much as she does. When Pilat walks Basia in New York she always wears matching yellow, to signal to any alarmed passersby that the robot has a human companion. “If the robot comes with a human, it is better – a woman, even more so. It takes off the edge a little bit,” she says.

That police forces keep buying Spots hasn’t helped. When the New York police department (NYPD) sent one equipped with cameras into a home invasion in the Bronx, and another into a hostage situation in Manhattan, there was fierce backlash, with Spots becoming a symbol for misplaced funding priorities – the basic model starts at US$74,500 a piece – mass surveillance fears, and heavy-handed policing in poor communities. “Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. The NYPD briefly canceled its contract with Boston Dynamics, but in April this year they announced they were buying two kitted-out Spots for $750,000.

Last year Boston Dynamics spearheaded an open letter pledging they would not weaponise their robots or allow individuals to do so. The lack of weaponry on Basia still doesn’t quell the instinctual repulsion I feel, the suspicion that she might suddenly run at me at any moment.

“We have this,” Pilat says, patting the knee-high barrier that surrounds the studio, “because even I don’t even touch them. It is really a safe place.”

“I know people think, the robots are coming,” she says, feigning terror. “No – they’re awkward, they’re like little kids!” She sees my face, and adds: “My first reaction is probably no different than yours. I don’t really understand them, to be honest. That’s why I have to work with engineers. But I understand that they’re fascinating.”

People take pictures and videos of a Spot at the 2019 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal
People take pictures and videos of a Spot at the 2019 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Pilat has been working with an engineer and her assistant to shape the robots’ “personalities” through a collage of AI, software and machine learning. Basia is “the serious one”, completely focused on her painting; Vanya is the “mother of the group” who will pace around the space observing; and Bunny is a show-off who will, according to her programming, frequently wander over to pose in a window specially designed for selfies.

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“Art is the background for selfies – that is what it has become, right?” Pilat says bluntly. “I don’t deplore it – when you go to museums, people are all taking selfies. But we’re totally embracing it. People will want to take pictures with the robots.”

Basia will paint roughly one canvas every three days: 36 in total, which will form a kind of robot manifesto told through 16 symbols; a primitive, pictorial language of squares, lines and circles Pilat designed based on the robots’ physical capabilities.

“It’s almost like kindergarten,” she says. “Basia will make mistakes.” Are they able to surprise her? “Not often. But sometimes they do something we didn’t expect and you get goosebumps. Of course, it’s all programming – but it’s the ghost in the machine.”

Pilat is uniquely shaped by technology. She grew up behind the iron curtain in Łódź, Poland, and vividly remembers her first encounter with technology: seeing adults gathered around a radio in a locked room, covertly listening to Radio Free Europe. “Technology was giving us hope, to my parents. I truly feel technology has been always there for me,” she says. “And now there’s lots of unease towards technology, I feel a debt to repay my old friend.”

Pilat moved to Silicon Valley in 2004. Having studied illustration and painting, she developed a theory that, as portraiture captured the aristocracy of the past, it should now capture today’s elite: the machine. She approached engineers at Boston Dynamics and asked to paint a robot. OK, they said – but why just paint it when you could play with it?

Pilat frequently refers to herself as a “propaganda artist” for machines, a reference to her upbringing in communist Poland where “art was all propaganda, art told you what to do”. Later, she admits she is being deliberately provocative. “It is a little bit sarcastic – I’m playing at being 100% for technology, which is very controversial. Of course there are valid concerns about technology. But I chose to engage with it and train it. It’s my way of dealing with the problem.”

It’s much easier for me to sell work that I paint myself – there is a resistance to machine-made work

Agnieszka Pilat

You do have a company logo emblazoned across the face of your art, I point out. “Removing the logo is a breach of contract,” she replies. “I’m under NDA so there’s only so much I can disclose, but I’m very mindful of being financially dependent on a company. And I’m not [financially dependent on Boston Dynamics] because it puts in question what I’m doing. I don’t work for Boston Dynamics. I work for the robots.”

Boston Dynamics are not paying Pilat to use their robots: she owns Basia, leased Vanya from them and borrowed Bunny from RMIT. But isn’t she wary of the good PR that comes from their $74,500 robots doing something nice like painting, rather than frightening people in the Bronx?

“It is the [Boston Dynamics] engineers that want me to do this, not the marketing people or the CEOs,” she says. “I guess I do put a softer edge on the robots. But on the other hand, I’m a bit of a problem for them too because they don’t really need me. I come in and do silly stuff with the robots.”

“I will tell you a secret,” she adds. “It’s much easier for me to sell work that I paint myself, with my human hands, to collectors. There is a resistance to machine-made work. But I think this work is much more important than my own.”

It is her belief that “silly stuff with robots” is helping people come to a better understanding of our future with robotics and AI, a more complex view than what they get from YouTube videos of robots being controlled by cops. “Part of why I’m excited to do this is because I understand the fear,” she says. “I do think we have a different relationship when you meet them. When I take them on a walk, people are nice. They ask questions. If they have concerns, they’ll tell me. But when a video of me walking Basia ends up online, that’s when people start screaming at me.”

The NGV show is a first in many ways: it is Pilat’s biggest show and it is also the first time she is leaving her robots to their own devices. “I will miss them,” she says. “They are celebrities – when I come with the robots, it is an exciting thing. If it’s just poor little me, it is like I don’t even exist. Nobody wants to take pictures with me on the street.”