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Egypt detains artist robot Ai-Da ahead of historic pyramid show over ‘security risk’

Published: Updated:

Egyptian security forces detained Ai-Da – the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist – hours before she was due to present her contemporary artwork at a landmark show at the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Ai-Da - built by British artist Aidan Meller - was due to present her work on Thursday, the first time contemporary art would have been allowed next to the pyramid in thousands of years.

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But because of “security issues” that may include concerns that she is part of a wider espionage plot, both Ai-Da and her sculpture were held in Egyptian customs for 10 days before being released on Wednesday, the Guardian reported.

However, Meller argues his robotic creation is just an art project signifying the possibilities of AI technology.

The British Embassy reportedly got involved in the case after being contacted by Meller.

“The British ambassador has been working through the night to get Ai-Da released, but we’re right up to the wire now,” said Meller, shortly before her release. “It’s really stressful.”

According to Meller, border guards detained Ai-Da at first because she had a modem, and then because she had cameras in her eyes (which she uses to draw and paint).

“I can ditch the modems, but I can’t really gouge her eyes out,” he said.

She was finally cleared through customs on Wednesday evening, hours before the exhibition was due to start, with the British embassy in Cairo saying they were “glad” the case had been resolved.

Both Ai-Da and her sculpture had been sent in specialized flight cases by air cargo to Cairo before the Forever Is Now exhibition, which runs until November 7 and is presented by the consultancy firm Art D’Égypte in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ai-Da is the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist. (Twitter)
Ai-Da is the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist. (Twitter)

The exhibition will showcase works by leading Egyptian and international artists including Stephen Cox, Lorenzo Quinn, Moataz Nasr and Alexander Ponomarev.

Ai-Da’s 2 x 2.5-meter sculpture is a play on the riddle of the sphinx – “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” – the answer to which is a human.

“Four legs is when you’re a toddler, two legs is when you’re an adult, and three is when you’re elderly and need a walking stick,” Meller said. “So, Ai-Da produced an enormous version of herself with three legs. We’re saying that actually, with the new Crispr technology coming through, and the way we can do gene-editing today, life extension is actually very likely. The ancient Egyptians were doing exactly the same thing with mummification.”

Ai-Da was built by a team of programmers, roboticists, art experts and psychologists. The multimillion-pound project was completed in 2019 and is updated as AI technology improves.

The creator added: “She is an artist robot, let’s be really clear about this. She is not a spy.”

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