Robot dogs tackle big themes as they paint and play

Basia, Omuzana and Bunny are less curious about me, than I am about them. But their presence makes some in the room feel uneasy.

Basia stands beside the canvas, tool in claw, considering the next daub of paint. Bunny, more of a show off, performs tasks gracefully for the benefit of onlookers.

This trio of robot painters are rehearsing for a future where machines move beyond their utilitarian functions.

Over 4 months at the National Gallery of Victoria, these yellow and black Boston Dynamics ‘Spot’ robots will be working on some 36 paintings, while also spending time playing and resting in their studio housed on the gallery’s ground floor.

As a science and technology reporter for Cosmos, I love covering robotics, and have even been dubbed a ‘robot enthusiast’. 

It turns out, I am much more interested in these robots, than they me. 

As Basia, Omuzana and Bunny move purposefully around their minimalist home office, they only occasionally seem to acknowledge my presence – mere metres away – with a brief tilt of their sensors, as I film them going up and down stairs, crouching to recharge, or picking up toys. 

The spectacle was enchanting, to me at least. Other observers call it eerie or surreal.

The robots at work in their studio at the NGV / Credit: Petra Stock

Human collaborator and artist, Agnieszska Pilat, says the work Heterobota is a historic moment which will test “our threshold for machines to exist outside of servitude and develop their own creative pursuits”.

Pilat says as the dog-like robots move autonomously around their ‘studio space’ and ‘living room’, they are making their own decisions about where to go, what next to do.

The robots have been programmed to an extent. Pilat and her team have assigned certain roles – painting, playing – to each of the robots. But “how they do it, how well they do it” is up to them, she says.

When Pilat leaves Melbourne, the robots will stay behind, and continue working on their art.

To the untrained human eye, their work appears naïve -a series of monochromatic perpendicular lines and circles daubed on cerulean backing.

Pilat describes the markings as a kind of early language. “My dream is that 400 years from now perhaps these will be found – like ancient scrolls – and future technology will try to work out, what are they saying,” she says.

live stream allows anyone to watch the robots in their studio and living room. 

Meanwhile those in Melbourne can visit Heterobota in person until 7 April 2024 as part of the NGV Triennial exhibition.

While there, gallery goers paying close-enough attention might spot another piece of art involving a mechanical animal.

The end close up
Ryan Gander’s The End / Credit: Petra Stock

Ryan Gander’s work The End features a modest animatronic mouse.

In a white room, a mouse peaks through an ankle height hole. In its tiny voice the mouse speaks about some of the biggest issues facing humanity – climate change, technology and ‘the end’.

Gander offers the mouse as an antidote to everything huge in the world. He says “it’s a device to create empathy which kind of gets rid of this terrible stigma we all have about talking about philosophy.”

The mouse he says, is “kind of like a prophet talking about the values of time, tension, empathy and collectivity”.

Buy cosmos print magazine

Please login to favourite this article.