AI art vending machine seeks human connection, not money

AI vending machine

Vending machines have been helping us make quick transactions for more than 200 years, and while you can practically buy anything from prescription medicine to pizzas from an automated kiosk, they’ve never had their own unique personality, until now.

Story: Kurtis Eichler / AIML
Photos: Jon Wah / AIML

South Australian artists James Brown and Dave Court partnered with the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) to create an AI-powered, talking vending machine. The interactive artwork is adding a touch of futuristic cyberpunk to Adelaide's Rundle Place shopping plaza for the next three months.

Rather than offering snacks or drinks, ARTofficial Truth Machine ATM-001 uses state-of-the-art AI software to engage in fluent and natural conversation with people.

The machine takes on several synthetic personalities, including impersonations of a crude and casual Richard Pryor, a witty and bubbly Dame Edna Everage, and the cold apathy of an inhuman automaton.

It’s fitted with a camera to recognise when there’s a person standing in front of it. Once they’ve pushed the button to start, the machine greets the user and initiates a back-and-forth spoken conversation.

It’s then up to the person to negotiate with the machine to receive a prize, which is largely determined by the voice prompts it is given.

Some interactions result in a gift of a packet of rare Australian native seeds, while other rewards include unique AI-generated artworks and individualised personal feedback written as poetry; each artwork will contribute to a growing online gallery.

“It feels like you’re kind of walking up to a futuristic vending machine,” Brown says. “It’s very Blade Runner, it’s very much in the brutalist zone.”

Brown and Court engaged a number of South Australian experts and artisans in bringing the project to life. They worked with designers Sabrina Sterk and Anthony Gagliardi on the machine’s physical and graphic design; with software engineers Mac Brading and Shaun Goudy integrating the user interface with the various software components, and writer Thomas Henning producing much of the written material.

hands holding a colorful folded poster, and a small bag of plant seeds

Users negotiate with the machine to receive a prize, which is largely determined by the voice prompts it's given, with some interactions resulting in a gift of a packet of rare Australian native seeds while other rewards include unique AI-generated artworks.

The machine’s chassis is made from concrete—fabricated by Jimmy Dodd and Love Concrete—with an annex case containing the camera, display screen and microphone. The result is a striking electronic and concrete monolith.

Software engineers Max Brading and Shaun Goudy handled the machine’s software design and electronic interfacing. AIML researcher Dr Lingqiao Liu and machine learning engineers Sam Bahrami and Sebastian Parkitny built the machine’s AI capability using OpenAI’s GPT-3 and Whisper.

Using similar underlying technology to the wildly popular ChatGPT AI chatbot, GPT-3 is a more powerful AI model that allows a computer to understand and produce human-like language using deep learning—a type of AI that uses networks of multiple layers that mimic the structure of the human brain to learn from data and make predictions. Whisper is a highly accurate speech recognition tool that can understand a person’s natural way of speaking, even in noisy environments.

“This has been a process of more than a year of development and the technology, and the AI has really improved so much over that time,” Court says.

“At the start of this, some of the technology we’re using now wasn’t so easily available.”

Vending machines are hardly new, they first appeared in 1880’s London train stations to sell postcards. While contemporary iterations typically sell soft drinks or snack food, historians note the earliest example was a coin operated device dispensing holy water in first-century Roman Egypt.

Seeds dispensed by ARTofficial Truth Machine ATM-001 come from the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre, an organisation that helps protect vulnerable flora. Some of these include Eucalyptus macrocarpa seeds, a rare flowering gum tree native to Western Australia.

Brown, an accomplished artist and designer, says he wanted to turn the traditional idea of a vending machine on its head.

“You can have an interaction with this type of machine, and you get to leave with something it creates,” Brown says.

“I like working with transformative stuff where a person can be taken into another world or feel a rich feeling just through an experiential process. It’s nice to think, in the same way, people are going to walk away from this vending machine thinking ‘what just happened?’”

“Most things vending machines dispense aren’t good for you, they’re bad for you. However, this machine seeks connection in exchange for art and growth, rather than currency in exchange for sweet treats.”

man standing in front of AI vending machine

The vending machine is fitted with a camera to recognise when a person is standing in font of it. Once the user pushes the button to start, the machine initiates a back-and-forth spoken conversation. 

The vending machine is one of three projects to secure funding as part of the Adelaide CreaTech City Challenge—a partnership between the City of Adelaide; the Department for Industry, Innovation and Science; and the Adelaide Economic Development Agency (AEDA).

The projects aim to create unique and fun experiences for city users, illustrate collaboration between artists and researchers, and create new South Australian intellectual property.

For Court, who has created more than 30 public artworks in Australia and abroad, the project was always more than just reinventing a vending machine; it was about creating a curious environment where people could be drawn in to engage with something unique.

“Whether it’s engaging with an artwork or creating a situation for people to engage with each other, or in this situation, engaging with a machine and a computer and having it interact, it’s about making experiences that are impossible to replicate in any other place,” Court says.

“It’s also about making physical things that don’t exist on the internet. We could have created this as an online chatbot, but it would have been a totally different experience for people.”

ARTofficial Truth Machine ATM-001 is on display at Rundle Place, 77-91 Rundle Mall, Adelaide, South Australian until June 2023.

The Adelaide CreaTech City Challenge is a collaboration between the City of Adelaide; Adelaide Economic Development Agency (AEDA); and the Department for Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS); funded through the Capital City Committee Development Program.

Additional project support was provided by the Australian Government, through the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Augmented Reasoning.

ai vending machine with four people standing in front

From left: Luke Heffernan, AIML project manager; Sam Bahrami, AIML machine learning engineer; Dave Court, artist; Seb Parkitny, AIML machine learning engineer; James Brown, artist.   

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