A Robot Van Gogh Could Finally Be In Our Midst

My following article below was originally published by SERIOUS WONDER:

Robot art feature

If you’re a science fiction geek like me then you’ll remember that particular scene on I, Robot where Sonny the robot is drawing a picture depicting a dream he had the night before. The conversation between the robot and Detective Spooner (starring Will Smith) sometime before went as followed:

Det. Spooner: “Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you. You are just a machine – an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”

Sonny: “Can you?”

Robot Sonny

“I believe that we are on the cusp of the robot revolution. If we walk down the street now – not many robots in sight. But I believe that robots will start to appear in everyday life in cities and homes over the next decade.” – Paul Beardsley

That is what Paul Beardsley, who is the Principal Research Scientist at Disney Research in Zürich, Switzerland, told Serious Wonder during a brief conversation on his latest project – robot artists! In particular, the project was on developing an untethered robot creating simple art using sand on a beach, which Beardsley conducted with undergraduate students from ETH Zürich for their final year. The video shown below shows the prototype they’d developed after 9 months of research.

Robot artist 1

Say hello to Beachbot! While he may not look like much, nor do his drawings hint at reaching the level of artistic masterpiece as that of Van Gogh and Da Vinci, it’s certainly a start on a long and beautiful journey for future robots. In fact, according to Beardsley, Beachbot is merely the prototype and there are plans for extended research. For now, however, Beachbot will have to remain that pre-programmed robot artist who adheres to human assistance more so than non.

“There’s an offline step where we take a target image and do path-planning, meaning to create a trajectory / motion commands for the robot, along with up-down rake commands, to produce the drawing. That offline process currently has some manual input to achieve the desired drawing, but we are working on full automation.” – Paul Beardsley

Stationed with four vertical poles to define the canvas area, the robot uses depth sensors to detect each pole’s location with millimeter (mm) precision. From there the robot merely follows a pre-choreographed pathway, both raising and lowering its rake to draw lines in the sand at different depths. And so, an artist is born.


As noted, the Beachbot is certainly not our future robot Van Gogh, but it certainly is a stepping stone towards future robot artists. Soon there’ll be robots who’ll create works of art once thought impossible. In fact, we’re already reaching that point with 3D printers, which print designs that no human could possibly design themselves, given the intricacy of each design. In fact, soon they’ll move away from paper canvases and look at our entire network of fields, cities, and landscapes as an empty canvas, ready to express their art.

For Paul Beardsley, however, his ideal robot of the future isn’t so much being artists as they are being entertainers. One could argue, though, that an entertainer is an artist in their own merit. Imagine going to watch an actual Muppets show where each Muppet, from Kermit to Miss Piggy to Animal all being artificially intelligent robots, conveying the same entertaining art that we all came to love and enjoy growing up! Oh, what a wonderful future that’ll be.


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