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Last Monday, the first caucasian Geminoid was presented at Aalborg university. The Toonari Post spoke with the man who’s face was duplicated in the Geminoid-DK robot. Henrik Scharfe studied Information Science and has his doctorate in Human Centered and Informatics at Aalborg University in Denmark. He is currently a professor at the University and has been on the staff list since 1999. In the interview, he spoke about his project Geminoid-DK that consists of a life-size robot.
Can you describe for us the work that you do within the Geminoid project?
I’m an associate professor at the University here in Aalborg and one of my obligations is to direct one of our research centers in Computer Mediated Epistemology. I came up with that word so people would ask me what it is. But really, what it means is that the way we think is influenced by the technologies around us. Epistemology is about how we think, and the computer-mediated part is about the role computers play. Think about something like GPS systems in your car – it changes your sense of direction and it changes the way that you drive. All these technologies, they change the things we do and the way that we think about ourselves, so that’s the foundation of our research here.
Within the Geminoid project we pursue those kind of questions as well. We’ve been following Hiroshi Ishiguro and his work for some years and thought it was deeply fascinating. He was the one who made the first Geminoid six years ago. [Our question is] what happens to human thought if you have realistic, working android sitting next to you? We set up loads of different experiments and we want to place the Geminoid in different situations, we want to record the interaction with it and we aim to learn how better to make communication between humans and robots.
What inspires you the most on a daily basis?
It’s a little bit like science fiction, you know. What science fiction does when it’s good is it takes [a] technology and then it just takes it to the extreme, like full blown artificial intelligence or time travel or androids walking around like human beings – that sort of thing. It allows us to play around with interesting questions; what would life be like if we could actually travel through time or if we had androids walking amongst us.
The Geminoid has that kind of quality, a little bit like science fiction only this is not fiction. We have [...] produced something that can actually fool people into thinking this is not a robot, it’s a human being. So the really cool thing about the project is actually that it raises so many interesting questions. It is really fun and has been throughout the project because yes, there are thousands of emails and loads of things we need to worry about and the Yen was really expensive at some point but this is really what fascinates me and keeps me going.
How does the team work?
We spend a lot of time discussing [methods] and one of the challenges [is to] work with what we call research protocols. A research protocol is a piece of paper that describes in detail how the experiment has to be done, what we are looking for and describes ways of recording that information, so we need to know in advance what to do. We work with our colleagues in Japan on the same experiments which means we have to agree on the protocol. We do the stuff twice and then we compare the results. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of thinking to get the questions right and we spend a lot of time doing that.
From my point of view, the kind of research we do is not really technical. I am not an engineer, so I am not really interested in the robots from the engineering point of view; I am interested in communication, that’s what I do.
Could you explain us the functions of the robot?
The functionality of this particular kind is limited to the face and the upper body, so for instance it cannot walk. However, the really nice thing is that it can duplicate the facial expressions of the one who is operating it. So if you go into the room with the robot what you will see is a mixture of things. One is the pre-programmed movements that are controlled by a computer, like the breathing system. It will breathe slowly and it will blink automatically, the eyes will be blinking at random intervals. It’s programmed to stimulate my own personal movements. So it moves in a way similar to the way I move.
My second body is [overall] very similar to the one talking to you right now. To the extent that even the freckles on my arms and the scars on my hands have been duplicated. So it’s molded really close to my appearance – that of course is a little strange.
It takes time for something to look as life-like as this. I had to go to Japan [where] they made a mold of my head [with] silicon plaster. They [then] build a clay model based on this cast and this was used as a model for the silicon layer, which you see on the robot. This is a very long and complicated process, made by very skilled people, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for their work, because I think they got it right.
What did the robot make you think about your own existence?
Well, we have a lot of interesting conversation on this matter. For instance, someone has suggested that it’s like making a copy of you that will never get old, never die. But I disagree. Like any machine, robots do get old even if they don’t die in a traditional way. Think about the cell phone you got three years ago, it’s really old today right? Compared to ten years ago it was phenomenal but compared to now, it’s old. So technology does get old. But I think you can learn a lot about yourself by going through a process like this. I am still trying to figure out what the most important things I have learned are and it’s going to take me some time.
When we first [saw] the nearly finished Geminoid, in the ‘off’ state it’s just like looking at something from the wax museum so that’s a little boring. But when you turn on the computers and the autonomous system takes over, the breathing begins and it looks around, the eyes are blinking and it might turn its head and look at you. I am standing next to it, seeing it come alive for the first time and I’m like “that’s it, that’s what I have been wanting to see.” So that was really cool.
What role does passion play in your project?
For me personally, passion is really important. I don’t think you can be a good researcher if you’re not passionate about something. The same in any other part of life. I mean, you can have relationships but if you are not passionate about them what’s the point? That’s part of what defines us as people, I feel very passionate about my wife and about our sons and I feel very passionate about my work and if I don’t, I should probably consider finding another work.
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