This Dapper Robot Is an Art Critic

Courtesy of Denis Vidal

The art critic once wielded considerable power. Able to make or break an artist, or at least influence public perception, art critics are now dropping like flies from print media, while those that do it well face an art world that is more or less a mirror image of a Wall Street commodities market. So it’s rather fitting that the robot art critic Berenson is now roaming the halls of the Paris' Musée du quai Branly for the Persona: Oddly Human exhibition.

Outfitted with a bowler hat, black coat, and white scarf, Berenson is named after American art critic Bernard Berenson, who famously wore a bowler hat and coat. And like a proper art critic, he silently drifts through Musée du quai Branly, which features indigenous art from Africa. 

Courtesy of Denis Vidal

Berenson was conceived and designed by anthropologist Denis Vidal and robotics engineer Philippe Gaussier. Through a camera in its right eye, it records people’s reactions to artworks. These recordings are networked with a computer in a wall behind the exhibition space. Positive reactions are represented as green circles, while negative ones are represented as red circles. Berenson either smiles or frowns depending on the frequency of either green or red circles. This neural network simulator is the foundation upon which Berenson builds its own tastes.

“The control is done via a neural network simulator named Prométhé,” Vidal tells The Creators Project. “We simulate in parallel several neural networks allowing learning and recognizing visual stimuli, to control the displacement of the robot and to avoid obstacles (the robot can even avoid going out of the experimental area if it is necessary). The work on Berenson used a lot of different researches we did on how animals and humans can recognize a place, a view, or an object.”

Robot Berenson © musée du quai Branly. Photo: Cyril Zannettacci

"We gave it the name and loose appearance of a 19th century aesthete half for fun and half for demystifying the futuristic crap which is surrounding sometimes robotics," Vidal explains. After designing Berenson, he and Gaussier wondered how their robot would react if put in an art museum. Would it be possible, they asked themselves, for a robot to build aesthetic preferences from its interactions with the visitor? These musings led to Berenson’s current roaming through the halls of Musée du quai Branly.

“In the museum, the learning is controlled first by a set of visitors who are asked to show Berenson one object they like the most in our experimental area but also one object they did not like (or found less interesting),” Vidal explains. At the end of each day, Berenson has learned 10 to 20 statues, and for each of them, tenths of local views. Each local view is associated thanks to a classical conditioning mechanism to a positive, negative, or neutral value.”

If the context is “go toward positive objects,” and Berenson faces two objects (one positive, one negative), Vidal says it will move in the direction of the positive object and will smile at this object. If Berenson faces only one negative object, it will display a sad face and will move, randomly avoiding obstacles.

Robot Berenson © musée du quai Branly. Photo: Cyril Zannettacci

“At some point, it will detect a ‘positive’ object and will go in its direction (Berenson can have the opposite behavior if we settle as a context ‘go to negative objects’),” Vidal says. “Because, the recognition of the local views is based on a competition mechanism, new objects activate the neurons associated to the recognition of nearest shapes (local views) previously learned and Berenson will answer according to these previous learnings (generalization property).”

Looking at Berenson satirically, what is entertaining is that the robot art critic is a pretty good metaphor for what lies behind online media’s art and cultural criticism. Across social media and search, data and algorithms highlight trending topics or perform sentiment analysis, driving a lot of what is being covered, critiqued and seen. So Berenson might be a just a primitive robotic art critic, but he is very much in line with online criticism.

According to Vidal, Berenson will be at Musée du quai Branly up until November, but will move around the exhibition only intermittently. Watch a video of Berenson in action on Business Insider, and click here to learn more about the museum. 

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