Interview with the first resident OpenAI artist

Reben is OpenAI’s first resident artist. Officially, the appointment began in January and lasted for three months. But Reben’s relationship with the San Francisco-based AI company seems to be normal: “It’s a little difficult, because I’m the first one, and we’re just figuring things out. I’ll probably continue to work with them.”

In fact, Reben has been working with OpenAI for years already. Five years ago, they were invited to test the old version of GPT-3 before it was released to the public. “I got to play with them a little bit and make a few sketches,” he says. “They were interested in seeing how I could use their systems in different ways. And I was like, cool, I like to try something new, obviously. Back then I was mostly making things with my models or using websites like Ganbreeder [a precursor of today’s generative image-making models].”

In 2008, Reben studied mathematics and robotics at MIT’s Media Lab. There he helped create a cartoon robot called Boxie, which inspired the cute robot Baymax in the film Big Hero 6. He is now the director of technology and research at Stochastic Labs, a non-profit incubator for artists and engineers in Berkeley, California. I spoke with Reben via Zoom about his work, the unresolved tension between art and technology, and the future of human technology.

Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

You are fascinated by the ways in which humans and machines interact. As an AI artist, how would you describe what you do with technology? Is it a tool, a helper?

First of all, I don’t call myself an AI artist. AI is just another technological tool. If something came along after AI that interested me, I wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’m an AI artist.”

Good. But what about these AI tools? Why have you spent your career playing around with this kind of technology?

My research at the Media Lab was about social robotics, looking at how people and robots interact in different ways. One robot [Boxie] he was also a film producer. They actually asked people, and we found that the robot was making people open up to it and tell it very deep stories. This was pre-Siri, or something like that. These days people are very familiar with talking to machines. So I’ve been interested in how humanity and technology change over time. You know, we are who we are today because of technology.

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