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Strolling through the exhibition halls of Paris' Quai Branly museum of indigenous art, a little robot in a bowler hat has learned to become a silent art critic. The Berenson robot, developed in France in 2011 and named after American art expert Bernard Berenson, is the brainchild of anthropologist Denis Vidal and robotics engineer Philippe Gaussier.
Its programming allows it to record reactions of museum visitors to certain pieces of art and then use the data to develop its own unique taste, which allows Berenson to judge whether or not it likes a certain work of art within an exhibition.
Vidal said: "When he likes something, he goes in this direction and smiles. When he does not like, he goes away and he frowns – that's how it works. Basically, the idea is by doing so, it adapts itself to its environment, on the basis of this artificial taste, and the aim is to develop a robot that's the equivalent of aesthetic exploration of the world and to see if because of that it may adapt itself more easily to the world around and make other things on this basis."
Vidal explained that while at first Berenson's tastes are dependent on the tastes of those around him, eventually the robot will sort out its own personalized taste, which is different from that of any other person – or any other robot.
"So he developed his own knowledge of the world, which no other robot will have. So if you put different [versions] of them, they will have different ways of exploring the world. So what we are doing now is we develop different robots with different tastes, artificial tastes, and we try to see if because of that they may explore the world around them in more interesting ways," Vidal said.
Berenson sees through a camera in its right eye, which records a black and white image on a computer located behind a wall in the museum exhibition. The camera zeroes in on several focal points for each object, which the robot either likes or dislikes – points that it likes are represented by green circles, whereas points it doesn't like are represented in red. If there are more green points than red, the overall impression is positive.
The complex system of connections that allows the robot to make these judgements is represented on the computer by a multi-coloured web, which works much like neurones in the human brain. In addition to his interactions with artworks, Berenson also interacts with visitors in the museum, many of whom are instantly drawn to the robot's gentlemanly appearance.
The Persona: Oddly Human exhibition will be open at the Quai Branly museum until 13 November 2016.