Jazoon 2012: Stay Human – on the future of men and robots

What I like about the Jazoon is that they try to widen your horizon. We had presentations how to publish books, psychology and the NASA. This year, the closing keynote was about androids – as in artificial humans, not Google.

Henrik Scharfe from Aalborg University talked about “Stay Human – on the future of men and robots” and Geminoid-DK, an android which Scharfe had built after his image (production notes). For this project, Time magazine put him on the “100 Most Influential People” list in 2012.

According to Scharfe, we’re all part of the “ultimate project: Make sense of the world” in a perpetual loop. To achieve this, we communicate. A very powerful means of communication is the story. Stories need not be true, they have to be relevant. In a sense, we talk to scale, to widen our influence.

During the presentation, Scharfe gave some insight into the production of the android. How odd it feels to enter a room where a copy of yourself is assembled. When the skin on the head is hanging open like from a nasty wound. When “your” arms are still missing. A head without hair. The different stages of coloring. When a worker stabs a needle through the skin to add the facial hair. Thoughts how the workers will treat your copy when you’re not around.

The team did celebrate its “birthday,” the date when it was first activated. For Henrik, it “felt like a friend waking from a long coma.”

After the android was assembled, automatic movements were programmed. We don’t usually notice but the facial expressions only “work” when all the details are right. This was hard to achieve because of the properties of the silicone skin, it’s thickness and the distance to the actuators. When the android is presented in public, this leads to opposite reactions by children and adults.

While adults are fascinated how human-like the android is, children are frightened by it because they sense that something is wrong. When the automatic movements (breathing, blinking) are deactivated and Henrik switches to manual control, this flips. Now, adult and teenagers are worried but the children suddenly see the android as a toy – something they can relate to.

When used as a mannequin, customers are hesitant to touch the clothes on the android while they have no problem to touch the dummies.

Looking at the future, Prof. Scharfe sees new modes of presence. Instead of traveling to Australia for a presentation, you might send your android (or just the skin). Over time, there will be a blended presence.

Beware: His android always causes a commotion at customs (when they stuff him into the X-ray) and the cabin crew (“Who is flying?” “I thought you were!”)

Of course, that causes questions: What happens if someone gets hurt by your android? Or when someone hacks into the remote control? As the androids get smarter (= they will be able to do more things on auto pilot like finding a room in a building), are they allowed to protect themselves against theft or attack?

Do we want to allow people to build androids for recreational activities? What about sex?

What if I order an android that looks like my girl friend? My ex-girl friend? Adolf Hitler? The pope? The President of the United States? My beloved dog? A Saber-toothed tiger (scale 1:1)? A child of mine that died in an accident or from an illness (like in A.I. Artificial Intelligence)?

Can I destroy this android? Walk it to a public square and club it with a baseball bat? Run it over with a car? Shoot it? Have it beg for mercy while I’m doing this? It’s just a recording, right?

If androids get really smart, will we grant them rights? How will you feel when your android greets you in the evening with “Honey, we need to talk. There is this really cute model at the other end of the city. Oh, and I’ll keep the kids.”

Will it be murder when I wipe the memory of such an android?

As you can see, these questions are important because technology just plows on. Technology doesn’t decide what’s right or wrong, we do. Answers will come through technology but we must still ask the questions. We must stay human where it counts.

To do that, more advanced research structured need to be built. It must be more simple for researchers to find relevant information (Watson comes to mind). It must be easier to share research. To collaborate. Today, it’s hard to combine resources. Some things aren’t on-line. Instead of individual PCs, universities and high-schools need to offer cloud services for their staff and students.

And most importantly, research needs to get out of the lab. It’s a neat story that people greet Geminoid DK when they enter the lab and say goodbye even when it’s switched off. But seeing surprise in the faces of children in a crowd only happens on the street.

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One Response to Jazoon 2012: Stay Human – on the future of men and robots

  1. Carol says:

    The latest Geminoid robot is one of the most realistic, and thus creepiest, android we’ve ever seen. The skin, hair, goatee (!), and facial expressions are real enough to fool you for a few seconds while it sinks in that something very, very weird is going on.

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