• Michelle Johnson

Writing robots: why this feature about AI-created art is one of my career highlights

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Today marks a year since I first interviewed AiDa and her creator Aidan Meller at Oxford University for the launch of the robot's debut art exhibition.

I've been very lucky to interview a wide variety of people during my career so far, but I can honestly say that meeting AiDa is one of my biggest highlights. As you know, I'm a huge fan of sci-fi, and it had been one of my dreams to meet a robot or AI in real life. Meeting AiDa, who at the time was deemed the most advanced AI in Europe and compared to Sophia, was like seeing my favourite books and films come to life.

Professionally, it was wild to be able to learn about AI on a practical level and to discuss things like the rise of machine learning and what that means for jobs, whether advanced programming can by its nature truly produce 'creative' art, and what robotics and AI meant for discussions of identity – something that was a clear point of interest for Aidan, given the press AiDa was receiving.

Amazingly, AiDa became Tempus' cover star for 2019's August-September issue, and proved to be one of our most daring and popular covers to date.

I often talk to trainee journalists through my work with the NCTJ, and find that one question that comes up regularly is about career progression. Many aspiring journalists often have a very clear idea of what area of the industry they'd like to go into, or what type of journalist they want to be. I would never want to discourage that, but I do think it's important for young journalists to keep an open mind. I believe it's important not to limit ourselves, and make the most of any opportunities that come our way.

© James Robinson / Tempus Magazine 2019

While I can give examples from my career path itself, I think AiDa might actually be my favourite example of how this can work in terms of an individual feature. The idea to 'interview' an AI actually started off as a slightly ridiculous new year's resolution: I wanted 2019 to be the year I met a robot irl.

I didn't really think it was going to happen but I also knew that machine learning was having a moment in tech fields and the UK's collective interest. I'd read some amazing features in Wired and Elle about Sophia – the Hanson Robotics flagship AI and first robot given human citizenship – and knew there was an audience that mirrored my own fascination with the subject.

I started regularly pitching the idea to my editor and putting feelers out to robotics companies, feeling that the readership of Tempus – which often speaks to industry leaders about innovations in various fields – would enjoy a feature about new technology. Our only concerns were that artificially intelligence had an element of fear attached to it (Tesla founder Elon Musk described AI as humanity’s "biggest existential threat") and so might be a little 'out there' or controversial. In my view, this made it all the more interesting as a feature.

I continued to put feelers out in the UK and US for any new releases or opportunities that would allow me to get up close and personal with artificial intelligence in a way that suited our readership. It took nearly six months to discover AiDa, who was not only an AI available for face-to-face interview but was embarking on a project in the art sector that had already exceeded predicted sales – beyond perfect for a luxury lifestyle publication to find an angle.

A year later, I'm still very proud of the resulting cover feature: Art ex Machina. I'd say I've mainly been an entertainment and lifestyle writer through my career, so robotics is by no means within my sphere of expertise. But looking back at the piece, I'm still genuinely pleased with it and feel like I managed to strike the balance between my layman's fascination and Aidan's expertise as I hoped to.

What I discovered from writing this, is just how quickly it opened up many more avenues for us to explore. Now, as an editor, I wouldn't say I go out of my way to find controversial or wild subjects, but I'm certainly less fearful of commissioning something that might have an unexpected impact on our readers. There's something to be said for following a passion or stranger idea down the rabbit hole, and seeing what you can find.

Personally though, I still remember just how much fun this feature was to write – and being able to justify the phrase ‘Skynet-style robopocalypse’ in an actual publication still makes me grin.