The robot begins by applying an underpainting to set the tone of the image before working on a refinement layer. The robot begins by applying an underpainting to set the tone of the image before working on a refinement layer. The robot begins by applying an underpainting to set the tone of the image before working on a refinement layer. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Student builds super-smart robot that paints award-winning Einstein portrait

The painting of the world's most beloved scientist nabs top prize in international contest.

Albert Einstein has an outsize influence on pop culture – everyone from cake decorators to comic book creators are inspired by him.

So it comes as little surprise that the beloved genius served as a muse at the Robot Art competition, a six-month-long contest pitting the world's best painting robots against each other. In total, 15 teams from seven countries submitted more than 70 different artworks. The contest was judged by art critics and technology gurus along with the general public.

Over the weekend, the first place prize of $30,000 was awarded to a team of students from National Taiwan University led by Ming-Jyun Hong, a 24-year-old Masters student. Their winning robot painted a portrait of Einstein from a limited set of pigments that included only cyan, yellow, magenta, black and white. Like an old master, it mixed all its paints on a side palette before applying it to the canvas. "It struck to me that I could draw one of the greatest scientists in history," Hong told From The Grapevine. "Because science is the most important key in electrical engineering, I think it's a good idea to paint a portrait for Albert Einstein and commemorate his contribution to science."

Hanoch Gutfreund, the director of the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University in Israel, concurred. "Einstein's face is the most recognizable face worldwide," he said. "The interest in Einstein does not fade into history."

Coming in second place was D.C.-based Pindar Van Arman, whose own robot painted a portrait of Einstein that went viral after it was shared by the official Albert Einstein Facebook account. The 42-year-old entered this competition with a partner – his 10-year-old son Hunter, who directed the robot to paint a self-portrait.

"It should be no surprise that Einstein is a popular subject among robot artists as he epitomized the union of creativity and science," Van Arman told us this morning. "Einstein would probably have loved things like this."

Third place went to a team from Italy who, alas, did not paint any pictures of the world's most famous physicist.

The finished product, along with a close-up of the winning Einstein portrait.The finished product, along with a close-up of the winning Einstein portrait. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

The contest is the brainchild of Andrew Conru, a Seattle-based technologist. "I was trying to figure out if it's possible for robots and artificial intelligence to paint something beautiful using brushes," he told From The Grapevine. Conru funds the $100,000 in cash prizes through his charitable foundation, which he started thanks to some early Internet success. What was his invention, you ask? While he was working on his Ph.D. in engineering design at Stanford University in 1994, Conru created one of the first online dating companies, which eventually became a site called FriendFinder.com.

Conru said he plans on funding the competition every year for at least the next five years, and is already excited for the 2017 installment. "In the next 12 months, there are more inexpensive and capable robot arms that are coming to market," he explained. "We're seeing a number of Kickstarter programs with $500 robot arms that have all the degrees of freedom and the robust stability they need to do paintings. It will enable a much wider number of people to participate. I anticipate we're gonna have far more participants next year than this year."

As for Conru himself, he's still learning how to paint by hand. Last year, he made a personal resolution to work on a new painting each day. While the January artworks were nothing to speak of, he thought they got better by December. "By the end of the year, I had paintings that even my mom liked."

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