“Spot” robot dogs, designed by Boston Dynamics, are learning to paint with the help of an artist.

These robot dogs are designed to perform tasks that are dangerous for humans. They are mainly used in the mining, construction, police, and military fields.

Agnieszka Pilat has been creating art using Boston Dynamics' robot dogs for years. Aaron Richter : The National Gallery of Victoria
Agnieszka Pilat has been creating art using Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs for years; Photo: Aaron Richter/The National Gallery of Victoria

Now, three “Spots” named Vanya, Bunny, and Basia are beginning a four-month residency at the NGV’s Triennial in Melbourne where they will be creating art in a purpose-built studio. There are docking stations where the robots will “sleep” or recharge their batteries and little cubes of QR codes are scattered around to help the robots navigate through the space.

This is being overseen by Agnieszka Pilat, the artist of choice among Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and a former artist in residence at SpaceX and Boston Dynamics.

Pilat has experience both painting with tech and training tech to paint. She even lives with Basia, taking her for walks around the neighborhood in New York City.

“You know old cat ladies?” she stated. “It is my dream to be an old robot lady. And 50 years from now, I think it’ll be possible.”

Pilat has worked with an engineer and her assistant to shape the robots’ “personalities” through a collage of AI, software, and machine learning. Basia is “the serious one”, entirely focused on painting; Vanya is the “mother of the group” who paces around observing; and Bunny is a show-off who frequently wanders over to pose in a window specially designed for selfies.

Describing herself as a “techno-optimist”, Pilat stated, “When people meet Spot in person, the vast majority fall in love very fast—it’s hard not to be charmed by [the robots] because they’re very cute.”

Boston Dynamics is working with Pilat on the project, but they’re not paying for her to use the robots. Pilat owns Basia, leased Vanya, and borrowed Bunny from RMIT.

Two of the robots, Basia and Bonnie, with their work National Gallery of Victoria
Two of the robots, Basia and Bonnie, with their work; Photo: National Gallery of Victoria

“It is the [Boston Dynamics] engineers that want me to do this, not the marketing people or the CEOs,” she says. “I guess I do put a softer edge on the robots. But on the other hand, I’m a bit of a problem for them too because they don’t really need me. I come in and do silly stuff with the robots.”

The partnership with Boston Dynamics began because Pilat originally approached them about painting Spot.

“They were like, ‘You have to play with the robot, you can’t just paint it,’” Pilat said. “It all switched on at that moment.”

The NGV show will be Pilat’s biggest show and also the first time she is leaving the robots to their own devices. She believes that “silly stuff with robots” will help the public gain a better and less fearful understanding of robotics and AI.

“I think it’s artists’ responsibility [to engage with new technology], and we have the ability to play on a much smaller scale before something becomes global,” she stated.