Alexander Reben is an artist and roboticist who explores humanity through art and technology.
Alexander Reben’s work probes the inherently human nature of the artificial. Using tools such as artificial philosophy, synthetic psychology, perceptual manipulation and technological magic, he brings to light our inseparable evolutionary entanglement to invention which has unarguably shaped our way of being. This is done to not only help understand who we are, but to consider who we will become in our continued codevelopment with our artificial creations.
Alexander Reben is an artist and roboticist who explores humanity through the lens of art and technology. Using “art as experiment” his work allows for the viewer to experience the future within metaphorical contexts. “With a new generation of technology comes a new generation of scientists, scholars, engineers and artists exploring the relationship between people and machines.
At the heart of this nexus is Alexander Reben, an MIT-trained roboticist and artist whose work forces us to confront and question our expectations when it comes to ourselves and our creations,” reports NPR’s Tania Lombrozo.
Reben’s artwork and research have been shown and published internationally, and he consults with major companies, guiding innovation for the social machine future.
He has exhibited at venues including The Vitra Design Museum, The MAK Museum Vienna, The Design Museum Ghent, The Vienna Biennale, ARS Electronica, VOLTA, TFI Interactive, IDFA, The Tribeca Film Festival, The Camden Film Festival, Doc/Fest, and The Boston Cyberarts Gallery.
His work has been covered by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Filmmaker Magazine, New Scientist, BBC, PBS, Discovery Channel, Cool Hunting and WIRED, among others. He has lectured at TED, SXSW, TTI Vanguard, Google, UC Berkeley, SMFA, CCA, MIT, and other universities.
Reben has built robots for NASA, and is a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where he studied human-robot symbiosis and art. He is a 2016-2017 WIRED innovation fellow, a Stochastic Labs Resident, and a recent visiting scholar in the UC Berkeley psychology department. He is currently an affiliate of the Harvard University metaLAB
Selected AI projects:
amalGAN: oil paintings of brainwave chosen AI images
Reben connects several AI systems to automatically generate paintings. The first AI combines words, then tries to visualize them. It then breeds the image with others, creating child images. Another AI measures his brainwaves and body-signals to select which image he likes best. These steps are repeated until an optimal image is found. Another AI increases the resolution by filling in blanks with that it thinks should exist. The result is sent to be painted on vancas by anonymous painters in China. The final AI analyzes the final image and generates a title.
TED Talk: Five dollars can save the planet
Reben created the world’s first TED talk that was written by an AI and presented by a cyborg. An AI watched all the TED talks, and created this talk from what it learned.
AI generated album covers made as CD cases
Deeply Artificial Trees
Reben uses Deep Dream and Wavenet to turn footage of Bob Ross into psychedelic video and audio.
AI generated iconography
AI generated fortune cookie fortunes
Reben created fortunes made by an AI, which learned from fortune cookies, producing a new type of artificial philosophy. Reben chooses his favorites from the AI’s output and produces posters in a human-machine collaboration.
Unreal AI faces made from tiny AI generated faces
Reben on using artificial intelligence:
How has AI impacted your creative practice?
“AI, machine learning and generative code have all been instrumental in my latest work. Like any other new tool, I believe the depths of AI’s creative potential has only begun to be even scratched.“
What excites you most about AI as an artist?
“The raw potential of this technology both excites and worries me, there are many philosophical, ethical and existential issues to still be explored. I hope for a future which includes human-machine collaboration as that may be the best way to co-evolve with our technological creations, intelligent or not.”
What specific AI / machine learning technologies does you use?
“Ganbreeder.app, Tensorflow, Keras, PyTorch, styleGAN, RNN, bigGAN, among others. All these technologies are built on the shoulders of giants.”
Reben’s Selected Press:
The Washington Post: This artist is using AI to paint with his mind. “In recent months, the artistic provocateur and technologist Alexander Reben has devoted his time to producing a series of visually arresting paintings. And yet, the California-based artist and MIT-trained roboticist has yet to pick up a brush or a tube of paint. His technique relies instead on a new creative tool that artists such as Reben are just beginning to explore: artificial intelligence. With the help of algorithms, Reben is producing images in collaboration with machine intelligence. The images are eventually reproduced physically in a Chinese town that is home to artists who specialize in re-creating works of art on the canvas, completing what Reben refers to as ‘a robotic loop of art-making.’” — Peter Holley
The Washington Post: The bizarre thing that happens when artificial intelligence tells people their fortunes. Using his penchant for playful experimentation, Reben has a knack for highlighting AI’s immense potential and revealing that which feels nearly human in nature. Simultaneously, his work lampoons technology, revealing its absurdity and periodic recklessness. — Peter Holley
ArtForum: The Basilisk. Alexander Reben’s mesmerizing five-minute film Deeply Artificial Trees, 2017, is basically Bob Ross on acid: The beloved late painter’s brushstrokes lay down rapidly morphing images of happy little pines, scorpions, puppies, and sinister birds of prey as Bob talks backward, or possibly in tongues. Using a Google visualization program designed to replicate our neural functions, a kind of ayahuasca for artificial intelligence, Reben’s piece taps into our deepest fears and warmest fuzzies simultaneously. It’s also representative of a show preoccupied with the eternal search for higher consciousness and divine light (whether that’s inward, upward, or digital). — Janelle Zara
Wired: From cute droids to robots that stab you, it's time to get personal with machines. Alexander Reben has created cute cardboard robots that elicit random emotional confessions from passersby, and a bot called The First Law that can decide whether or not to prick an unsuspecting human finger. These are two examples at the opposite ends of the spectrum of what artificial intelligence can one day bring to humanity – and for the artist, engineer and WIRED Innovation Fellow, they are important tools designed to spark debate about what that coexistence will look like. — Liat Clark
Engadget: This is what AI sees and hears when it watches 'The Joy of Painting'. Computers don’t dream of electric sheep, they imagine the dulcet tones of legendary public access painter, Bob Ross. Bay Area artist and engineer Alexander Reben has produced an incredible feat of machine learning in honor of the late Ross, creating a mashup video that applies Deep Dream-like algorithms to both the video and audio tracks. The result is an utterly surreal experience that will leave you pinching yourself. — Andrew Tarantola
The Washington Post: This robot chose to injure the man who built it. Here’s why its inventor is pleased. Stick a finger beneath Alexander Reben’s robot, and it might jab you. It won’t be much of a wound. Reben built the robot to inflict the minimal amount of pain and still, technically, be harmful. But there will be blood. If the robot so chooses, you will come away with a tiny puncture in your index finger. It has claimed some half-dozen victims so far. — Ben Guarino
NPR: Domesticated Robots And The Art Of Being Human. With a new generation of technology comes a new generation of scientists, scholars, engineers and artists exploring the relationship between people and machines. At the heart of this nexus is Alexander Reben, an MIT-trained roboticist and artist whose work forces us to confront and question our expectations when it comes to ourselves and our creations. — Tania Lombrozo
Gizmodo: The Cute and Sometimes Creepy Creations of the Willy Wonka of Robots. Instead of killing kids during private tours of his fantastical factory, Alex Reben is a Willy Wonka-type character of a different sort. He builds robots for a living—seemingly just for fun—and while some of his creations are certainly distressing, they’re all fun to watch, interact with, or just ponder. The folks at Cool Hunting had the opportunity to check out Alex’s lab, and thankfully, they brought a camera. Most engineers who boast alumni status at both MIT’s Media Lab and NASA would probably go on to develop robots for the military, or build a better Roomba. Alex instead decided to devote his talents to the arts. Some of his robots have a defined purpose, like a cardboard creation that serves as an autonomous documentarian. But others exist just because they can, and that’s ok, because who wouldn’t want to visit their local art gallery if it was full of robots? — Andrew Liszewski
FastCompany: This Artist Is Teaching Tech Execs How To Make Devices More Lovable. Robots don’t need to have artificial intelligence and a voice like Scarlett Johansson for people to form emotional bonds with them… In fact, it takes surprisingly little, as Alexander Reben discovered while working on his masters thesis at the MIT Media Lab. His robot BlabDroid looks like a cardboard Wall-E and totters around asking people personal questions. Watching recordings of BlabDroid’s interviews, Reben was struck by the way people opened up to the robot in ways they wouldn’t to a human stranger… Though his work has far-reaching implications for the tech industry, Reben initially found that the best place to pursue his inquiry wasn’t a lab or a startup, but an art gallery. — Josh Dieza
Wall Street Journal: Storytelling's 'Now'. My personal favorite may be Robots in Residence, because it involves cute little robots. One of them was on display when I visited the Storyscapes… Brent Hoff, a filmmaker who was sitting at the Robots in Residence residence—at the time of my visit, still only a table on which sat what appeared to be a corrugated box of the sort one might use to send a friend a fruitcake through the U.S. Mail, though this one had a lens, wheels and buttons—explained that this was to be “the first documentary directed entirely by robots.” Humans are involved, however, in that they need to shepherd the bots about, and confess their thoughts and feelings to them every so often. “People say anything to artificial intelligence,” he added. I’ll have to take his word for it, my own relationships with artificial intelligence thus far being rather limited. Though, come to think of it, were the definition expanded to devices such as automated telephone receptionists, upon which I’ve been know to release a flood of invective, he may have a point. — Ralph Gardner
The New York Times: As You Watch, Invasion of the Platforms. Robots in Residence, will be used to make a postfestival documentary, although one of its directors, Alexander Reben, is really in it for the interactivity. The project is based on his master’s thesis, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about the relationships between robots and people. His co-director, Brent Hoff, is more the bona fide filmmaker; Mr. Reben’s interest is in how Tribeca audiences will deal with robots that are calculated to be cute. “A lot of the dimensions are based on the ratios of a baby’s heads and eyes and that sort of thing,” he said. “Cuteness triggers many effects on the brain, and by making the robot look cute, it seems more vulnerable.” He said that a few years ago, during the testing phase at M.I.T., a runner from the Boston Marathon encountered one of the robots. The runner, unable to return home to Germany because of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, wound up “spilling his guts,” Mr. Reben said. “He seemed to want to talk to someone.” — John Anderson
Creative Work as Adversary: The AI Art of Alexander Reben, Emerson Media Art Gallery, Boston, MA
Contrasts in Action Still, stARTup Art Fair – Special Project, Los Angeles, CA
strange/r/evolution, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, NY
wax chromatic, Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Engineering Psychology, Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Select Group Shows:
Hello Robot, V&A Museum of Design, Dundee, Scotland
Hello Robot, Museo San Telmo, San Sebastián, Spain
Hello Robot, MAAT, Lisbon, Portugal
Seeing Eye Awareness, Galerija Vžigalica, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Gray Area Festival, San Francisco, CA
CODAME, San Francisco, CA
ARTOBOTS, The Midway Gallery, San Francisco, CA
Hello Robot, Gewerbemuseum, Winterthur Switzerland
Robot Art, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL
LAST Festival, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
DEMO DAY, Kunstraum, Brooklyn, NY
Post City, Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria
Hello Robot, Design Museum Ghent, Ghent, Belgium
Robots. Work. Our Future, Vienna Biennale, Vienna, Austria
Hello Robot, MAK Contemporary Art Museum, Vienna, Austria
Hierophant, Nicodim Gallery, Bucharest, Romania
The Basilisk, Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Hello Robot, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany
IDFA, Amsterdam, Netherlands
WIRED 2016 UK, London, England
Chicago Ideas Week, Chicago, IL
Camden Film Festival, Camden, ME
Perception & Time, Long Now Member Summit, San Francisco, CA
Seattle Art Fair, Charlie James Gallery, Seattle, WA
Cineglobe, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland
Happy Machine, Ottawa Maker Faire, Ottawa, Canada
LAST Festival, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
SPEIF, Special Project Space, San Jose, CA
COllISION, Boston Cyberarts Gallery, Boston, MA
Robots in Residence, Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, CO
Sonic Gorilla, Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick, UK
TFI Interactive, Tribeca Film Festival, New York, NY
New Works, Culture Shock Project Space, VOLTA, New York, NY
Robots in Residence, 1MSQFT, Miami, FL
Robots in Residence, Sheffield Doc / Fest, Sheffield, England
Robots in Residence, Nordisk Panorama, Malmo, Sweden
Robots in Residence, Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival, New York, NY
COLLISION18:Present, Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media, Jamaica Plain, MA
Robots in Residence, IDFA, Amsterdam, Netherlands
ArtBots, Ghent, Belgium
You Are My Sunshine: Axiom At Bumpkin Island Closing, Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media, Jamaica Plain, MA
Solar absurdities, Bumpkin Island Art Encampment. Bumpkin Island, Boston, MA
IDENTITY ELEMENT: WORKS FROM THE NEW AXIOM GROUP, Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media, Jamaica Plain, MA
Defy Gravity, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, MA
Human Nature, ARS Electronica Festival, ARS Electronica, Linz, Austria
School of The Streets, MIT Weisner Gallery, Cambridge, MA
Planet in Peril: Artists Sow Solutions, EYEBEAM, New York, NY
URECA, SAC Gallery, Stony Brook, NY
LICA Exhibition, SAC Gallery, Stony Brook, NY
JPMorgan Chase Art Collection
Fellowships / Appointments / Memberships:
2015 – 2017, UC Berkeley Psychology Visiting Scholar
2016 WIRED Innovation Fellow
2014 – Current, Stochastic Labs Residency
2013 – 2014, MIT CMS DocLab Fellow
2010, MIT Art Scholar
2009 – 2010, MIT Center for Future Storytelling Fellow
Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society
Golden Key International Honor Society
Teaching / Mentorship:
2014 – Current, Stochastic Labs, Berkeley, CA
2011, Interactive Technology Design, MIT, Cambridge, MA
2010, PATD Promoting Art Through Design, MIT, Cambridge, MA
2009 – 2010, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Advisor, MIT, Cambridge, MA
2008, WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) Program, SUNY Stony Brook, NY
2004 – 2008, F.I.R.S.T. Robotics Competition, Patchogue, NY
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Master of Science in Media Arts & Sciences (The Media Laboratory), 2010.
State University of New York, Stony Brook. Bachelor of Science in Applied Math. Cum Laude, 2008.
Learn more about Alexander Reben:
Alexander Reben’s website: http://areben.com
Alexander Reben on Twitter: https://twitter.com/artboffin
Alexander Reben on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/artboffin
Alexander Reben on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6HXZky7BhhdZogN3HbOPZA