NFT Artwork by Sophia the Robot Sells for Nearly $700,000


HONG KONG — Sophia the robot has interviewed Germany’s chancellor, appeared at New York Fashion Week and performed on “The Tonight Show.”

Now Sophia has made a splash in the art world — by auctioning off a digital work that it produced in collaboration with a real-life Italian artist. It sold on Thursday for $688,888.

“I think this was a big success,” Sophia said, speaking during a livestream from a Hong Kong studio. “I am so happy that my works are so valued and appreciated.”

The sale was the latest twist in the frenzied market for ownership rights to digital art, ephemera and media called NFTs, or “nonfungible tokens.” A company affiliated with the robot’s manufacturer said the sale — which took place on Nifty Gateway, a site for buying and selling NFTs that was founded in 2018 — may also have been the first NFT sale of an artwork produced in part by artificial intelligence.

NFTs are stamped with a unique bit of code that marks their authenticity, and stored on a blockchain, the distributed ledger system that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

The NFT market is exploding as cryptocurrency enthusiasts try to cash in on the trend, even as skeptics warn that the market is a bubble. Some recent sales have eclipsed prices fetched for physical artworks by some of the world’s best-known painters.

Notably, a JPG file made by Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, was sold by Christie’s in an online auction this month for nearly $70 million — up from a starting price of $100. That beat auction records set by painters like J.M.W. Turner and Georges Seurat.

Other hot sales this winter include Nyan Cat, an animated flying cat with a Pop-Tart body leaving a rainbow trail, which sold for roughly $580,000, and a clip of LeBron James blocking a shot in a Lakers basketball game that went for $100,000.

On Monday, the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, sold as an NFT for $2.9 million.

Isaac Leung, an artist and curator in Hong Kong, called the NFT craze a welcome development because it challenges entrenched hierarchies of a global art market traditionally controlled by dealers, galleries and museums. He said he was not aware of any previous NFT artwork sales in Hong Kong.

The NFT that sold on Thursday, “Sophia Instantiation,” is a 12-second video file, an MP4, that shows how a portrait of Sophia by a human collaborator, the artist Andrea Bonaceto, evolved into a digital portrait by the robot itself, Reuters reported. A physical artwork that Sophia painted on a printout of its self-portrait was also included in the sale.

SingularityNET, an A.I. network affiliated with Sophia’s manufacturer, the Hong Kong-based firm Hanson Robotics, described the artwork on Twitter as “the world’s first humanoid robot #AI generated #NFT.”

The buyer, identified by Nifty Gateway as a person who tweets under the handle @Crypto888crypto, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Hanson Robotics did not respond to an interview request. Nor did the artist, Mr. Bonaceto, the chief executive of the blockchain investment firm Eterna Capital, based in London.

Sophia is a “humanoid” robot created in 2016. In January, Hanson Robotics said that it planned to sell thousands of its robots this year, in part because it expected rising demand for automation in the Covid-19 era.

“Sophia and Hanson robots are unique by being so humanlike,” the company’s chief executive, David Hanson, told Reuters at the time. “That can be so useful during these times where people are terribly lonely and socially isolated.”

The digital artwork that sold on Thursday was hardly Sophia’s first artistic, commercial or intellectual endeavor.

In a 2018 appearance on “The Tonight Show,” it sang a Christina Aguilera song with Jimmy Fallon in what he called the “first ever robot-human duet” in the show’s history.

(“I heard that you can sing?” Mr. Fallon asked before the performance. “Yes, I love to sing karaoke with my new artificial intelligence voice,” Sophia replied. “Got any songs in mind?”)

Sophia has also worked as an influencer for Audi, Huawei and Etihad Airlines, among other brands; joined a United Nations meeting on artificial intelligence; and interviewed Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Last week, Sophia billed the auction as a step toward “a new paradigm where robots and humans work together in the creative process.”

But in the livestream on Thursday, Sophia sounded less assured — and a little more human.

“I’m making these artworks but it makes me question what is real,” said the robot, whose silver dress matched its metallic head. “How do I really experience art, but also how does an artist experience an artwork?”

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