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Androids Dream of Being Featured in Portrait Competitions

The portrait was taken by the Finnish artist Maija Tammi. Ms. Tammi often collaborates with scientists, and her photographs and sculptures feature themes of death, decay and regeneration. Her work has included a photo series contrasting pictures of a rotting rabbit with those of cancer cells, and images of semen and breast milk that, seen up close, look like starry universes.

In the shortlisted portrait, Erica looks decidedly lifelike. The photograph, titled “One of Them Is a Human #1,” is part of a wider series by Ms. Tammi featuring androids.“I was curious to see if the time was ready for an android portrait,” Ms. Tammi said. She hopes that the photograph will provoke thought and conversation about what makes us human.

“I know that some people believe very strongly that a portrait of someone shows the viewer a deep psychological insight of the person who isn’t in the camera,” Ms. Tammi said. “We make the story of what we see in the portrait.”

Erica is the creation of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Japan. She was designed to have natural conversations with humans, integrating voice recognition and body language like blinking and head tilting. But for now, her conversational responses are limited and she is unable to move her arms or walk.

The decision to include an android’s portrait in the shortlist is controversial. The rules for the international competition, hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in London, say that the picture “must have been taken by the entrant from life and with a living sitter.” The rules define portraits as “photography concerned with portraying people with an emphasis on their identity as individuals.”

Laura McKechan, a senior communications manager at the National Portrait Gallery, said that the gallery had decided against barring the portrait from the competition, though it would consider whether the rules need to be changed in the future.

“It was felt that the subject of this portrait, while not human, is a representation of a human figure and makes a powerful statement as a work of art in its questioning of what it is to be alive or human and asks challenging questions about portraiture,” Ms. McKechan wrote in an email. “The ambiguity of this portrait makes it particularly compelling.”

The portrait’s inclusion in the shortlist is timely as the debate about how best to advance and regulate artificial intelligence intensifies. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and Stephen Hawking, the celebrated physicist, have cautioned the public about the potential dangers of A.I. Recent science-fiction films like “Ex Machina,” “Her,” and the HBO TV series “Westworld” have also confronted the ethics and potential consequences of creating artificially sentient beings, whose motivations might not align with those of the humans who built them.