AI cameras are put to the test in Bologna's Civic Museum

If you smiled at the Picasso in a museum but frowned at the Pollock, new technology could soon track your facial expression to judge the artist’s popularity.

On Thursday researchers unveiled trials of artificially intelligent camera systems in three Italian museums, aimed at gauging reactions to individual works of art.

Technology that can read five expressions – happy, sad, neutral, surprised or angry – has been on trial for three weeks in Rome, Bologna and Parma. It can also read a person’s perceived gender, age and eye movement. 

The researchers hope curators can use the information to redesign their exhibits, promoting well-liked works while potentially relegating those that draw less interest.

The algorithm has, however, been met with mixed reaction, with some artists and curators worrying it may intrude on viewers – or indeed turn art into just another race for ‘likes’. 

The cameras measure visitors' reactions to the artwork

Credit: Tele

There was little sign the technology was in action on Thursday in Bologna’s Civic Museum, other than small black cameras attached to the walls and a disclaimer in the ticket office. 

Inside the exhibition hall, a visitor walked up to a 12th century oil of Saint Sebastian tended by Saint Irene. An eye-height sensor registered a slight smile and sent a ‘happy’ report back to the database. It also showed the visitor looked at Irene briefly before shifting her gaze right to Saint Sebastian. 

“I was surprised at what a great opportunity this was,” Bologna civic museum curator Silvia Battistini told the Telegraph. “As a curator you don’t usually get such relevant information about the general public’s point of view without a mediator of some sort.”

Museums in Washington and London have previously invited visitors to interact with artificial intelligence in their exhibitions, but the ‘ShareArt’ experiment is the first to require no active involvement from art-lovers.

Would Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam pass the AI test?

Credit: Getty Images

[The research team from Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development initially built the system to help the country reopen museums while avoiding potential Covid 19 contagion. The cameras could alert staff if visitors were standing too close together or removed their masks.]

So far the facial recognition system has seen "a lot of neutral" expressions, said Riccardo Scipinotti, an electrical engineer who helped create it. 

Visitors did not have to worry about privacy concerns as no pictures are saved and that data comes out "just as numbers for analysis," he said. 

Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum in London, said that while dwell time sensors could help arts institutions understand their audiences, she would not adopt facial recognition. 

"Our expressions are organic and not an exact science," she told the Telegraph. 

"It would be a shame if data recording the intimate ways in which we react to an artwork curbed the spontaneity of our behaviour.”

"The idea that our emotions can be "stored" is reductive and slightly disconcerting."

Artists Rob and Nick Carter, creators of Transforming Vanitas, said the technology would be invaluable

Credit: Tele

Artists Rob and Nick Carter however welcomed the technology. 

"We exhibited our ‘Transforming Vanitas Painting, 2013, of a decomposing frog’ at The Maastricht art fair and we were amused to hear that a lady choked on her sandwich whilst watching it. We would have loved to witness that first hand. 

"It might seem intrusive but this kind of information is invaluable to artists such as us as it starts a dialogue and an enquiry which could potentially initiate a whole new body of work," they said.