Harold Cohen's AARON

Theo, 1992. Oil on canvas, 34x24 inches Photograph by Becky Cohen.

Theo, 1992. Oil on canvas, 34x24 inches Photograph by Becky Cohen.

I recently received an email from Harold Cohen's assistant that he was sorry for not getting back in touch with me sooner, but it was because Cohen had passed away earlier in the month. This was earlier this year.

Even though we had only recently met, I was wondering why Cohen had stopped talking with me. I had cold called him a couple of month earlier to talk about painting robots. I was prepping for my TEDx Talk on artificial creativity and thought he might have some wisdom to impart upon me. As we talked, I found that our conversations on the subject often lasted far longer than it seamed either of us had planned for.  The email his assistant was responding to was actually a draft of my TEDx Talk that I had sent him for review.  I never heard back from him and figured that maybe he was no longer interested with my views on the subject. I had no idea his health was failing at the time.

In our talks I found his views on painting robots to be remarkably insightful and a little cantankerous. They were what you would expect from a man 40 years ahead of his time.  His first painting robot AARON, was built in the 70s when no one else was even considering some of the concepts he was exploring.  In our talks one of thing that stood out was his belief that a painting robots primary shortcoming was that it did not create its own imagery.  He was obsessed with the idea that most were merely printers executing a filter on an image.  Perhaps a filter more complex than something you find on Instagram or Snapchat, but a filter none-the-less. Though I can not find the quote I do remember reading something by him that was to the effect of "There are two kinds of painting robots. Those painting from photographs, and those lying about it."

I wish we had longer to talk with him ,because even though we disagreed on a lot, he was absolutely right about one critical aspect of robotic art.  The ultimate goal is to break free from filters.  I don't know what that means exactly, but whenever I create a new approach to artificial creativity, I ask myself how much of a filter it is, and try to make it less so.