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I spoke with Julie Rafn Abildgaard a month ago about her research on the sophisticated Japanese/Danish humanoid Geminoid-DK. The impressive robot, designed to be an exact copy of a living human being, will Monday be presented at Aalborg University in Denmark by Professor Henrik Scharfe, who is also the face and body behind the first Caucasian geminoid. But who is Julie? And what can she tell us about her experience?
Julie Rafn Abildgaard (JRA): I study persuasive design at the centre for computer mediated epistemology at Aalborg University (EPD), an elite master program. Studying at EPD means that you’re studying persuasion but angles differ a lot. Some focus on the theoretical things, some on applied aspect of persuasive design and some want to explore the boundaries between persuasive design and emotions design or robotics – which I am doing.
We were five new students at persuasive design and any one of us should join one of the running projects in the department. [I expressed an] interest in the difference between western and eastern culture and Henrik Scharfe asked me to join the Geminoid project.
My role is to make research based on experiments and I also have to come up with ideas to make the experiments with the Geminoid and take part in the cooperation with ATR in Japan. Actually I have a lot of roles [that include] taking part in experiments, analysis and write papers about it and help build the Geminoid lab for when the Geminoid arrives to Denmark. And that’s just some of the stuff!
Tell us about your experiences in Japan
JRA: We were in Japan for eight days to do business and it was very exciting. The people at Kokoro, the manufacturing company and the people at ATR, the robot research centre were very hard working and very kind. Henrik Scharfe and the people at Kokoro worked on getting the Geminoid to look even more like Henrik and I was the first one to ‘teleop’ (teleoperation of a multi-agent reactive robotic system) with the Geminoid and that was a very good experience.
I waited for half a year to see this robot and I saw it for the first time in Tokyo on February 14. Kokoro also built the HI-1 and Geminoid-F. Geminoid-F is the female geminoid which is made from a Japanese woman and HI-1 is the one Hiroshi Ishiguro, the inventor of the Geminoid, made to look like himself.
It was very weird, I was almost shaking but I think it was because I’d waited that long to see it. At first sight, the robot was very humanlike although it was easy to see that it was a robot because it didn’t have a wig on. But it was still humanlike in a strange way so it actually took me a few seconds to feel comfortable looking at the robot and I guess what I felt was the feeling called ‘uncanny valley’. [The theory of] ‘uncanny valley’ describes the unpleasant feeling you get when something scares you when it’s not what you expected it would be. But I would underline that I only had that feeling once and after I had no problem looking at the robot. Many people think that the robot will keep scaring people but I think that my experiment with the robot shows that you get used to being around the robot after spending a short time with it.
How will you use the robot?
JRA: Well, the robot as it is now is basically meant for research. The very good mimics makes the robot usable for research regarding human nature. We want to make research in issue like – What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a relation to another human or a robot? What does identity mean and what does the presence really mean. We want to look at areas such as emotional affordances in human robot interaction, ‘Blended Presence’ and study culture difference in perception of the robot and right now, I’m studying culture difference in the perception. The main purpose is of course to make research about human-robot interaction.
Part of the reason why the robot looks almost exactly like a human is that we want to find out to what extend it is appropriate to make robots look like people surrounding them and you can make very exciting and amazing studies with robots who look like humans and humanoids.
What are your expectations?
JRA: The development of the technology is expanding and therefore I think that it is very important to find out how we can differ each technology device so that it can fit into either Danish culture, Japanese culture or others.
In the research, I expect that we find out that Japanese test persons will be much more respective to the robots than Danish test persons. In Japanese religion and [society] you consider that both material things and living creatures have a soul but in western culture we don’t believe this so that, of course, makes a difference.
We’ve gotten a lot of emails from other people who are interested [in the project], also from other countries but they’re not working with Geminoid yet. Maybe in the future.
How would you feel about a robot of you?
JRA: Henrik Scharfe has joked a lot about making a geminoid that looked like me and I actually don’t know if I would feel comfortable having a copy of myself but it is a funny idea – I don’t know yet.
Is your future in the field?
JRA: I hope to get employed as a ph.d. student to continue making research in human robot interaction, but you never know. I hope to get a ph.d.
Image provided by Julie – many thanks!