Geminoids and the new robot race

If it looks like a human, acts like a human and talks like a human, how will we know it's a robot?

Easter 2011: a set of videos posted on YouTube by Danish scholar Professor Henrik Scharfe attracts an audience of more than 4.3 million viewers. The subject of these viral videos was not celebrity nor politician-related, instead they showcased the capabilities of a human android, Geminoid DK, built in Scharfe's likeness.

'The most popular of the videos is a mechanical test,' explains Scharfe, 'probably because it has a sense of fun. What people don't realise is that they are not seeing the finished article. They are simply watching a test during the production stages of Geminoid DK which exploits all the facial 'muscles' in one direction and then the other.'

A series of videos soon appeared on YouTube in response to the footage, claiming the Geminoid was a hoax and simply footage of Scharfe himself, pretending to be a robot. Scharfe revels in those comments: 'What a compliment,' he says, 'that they should mistake DK for a real human.'

The man-machine

In 2006, Hiroshi Ishiguro, a keen roboticist based at the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories near Kyoto, Japan, commissioned the first Geminoid, which he named Geminoid HI-1, joining the Latin word 'geminus', meaning twin or double, and 'oid', to suggest similarity or being a twin. Using the self-modelled android, he intended to conduct experiments to discover whether a Geminoid can render the same presence, or sonzai-kan, as a human.

A heavy smoker, Ishiguro had his android double fitted with an extra air pipe so it could 'enjoy' cigarettes, as he did. Whether this contributed to his sonzai-kan or not remains to be seen as the air pipe was swiftly removed due to the adverse effect the smoke had on the Geminoid's silicone skin.

Geminoid HI-1 was crafted by Japanese company Kokoro, part of the Sanrio group best known for its Hello Kitty character. Kokoro's main business is animatronics, specialising in life-size robotic dinosaurs, which they create for museums and entertainment companies worldwide.

Alongside this, the company, whose name translates as 'heart', has been quietly and steadily producing ever more life-like humanoid robots, primarily for individual commissions such as Ishiguro's.

Kokoro are also creating a number of 'Actroids' that they have made available for companies to rent for promotional purposes. The Japanese Embassy has commissioned five of these robots to place in their offices around the world, that will act as receptionists and translators.

In early 2010, Ishiguro sought to improve on his Geminoid and, in collaboration with Kokoro, he unveiled a female addition to his brood, Geminoid F. Modelled on a female whose identity remains confidential, the improved design features of Geminoid F meant that it was significantly more cost effective and portable than the original.

After learning of the developments in Geminoid F, and at a cost of 'somewhere in the region of £100,000', Professor Henrik Scharfe of Aalborg University, Denmark, commissioned Kokoro to craft his very own Geminoid. As director of the Centre for Computer-Mediated Epistemology, Scharfe's focus is human-centred robotics and the interplay between identity and technology. He says he's 'not really interested in how robots are made, or in solving the problems of modern robotics, merely contributing to the field'.

Living with two bodies

From placing the order to receiving the finished product, Geminoid DK took nine months to craft. It may be a mere coincidence that Geminoid production time matches the human gestation period, but it's a memorable one nonetheless. Scharfe's lab assistant, Julie Rafn Abildgaard, speaks of her excitement and anticipation during that nine-month period as an expectant Mother would, awaiting the birth of her first child. 'We didn't know what it would look like and I was shaking with nerves. When we saw it, we couldn't stop staring at it. It took a few days for us to get used to it.' Scharfe instead likens the moment he first saw DK move to awakening someone from a deep coma. 'It was an emotional moment,' he says.

The nature of Geminoids is that they are created in the image of their master. For Scharfe, it was essential that DK was his double. 'Firstly, it is not artificial intelligence I am testing but telepresence – the ability to be present somewhere, without physically being there. Secondly, the impact of having an identical copy of me is one you wouldn't get if our Geminoid had a different face.'

Scharfe's unwavering commitment to the accuracy of DK saw him donate strands of his own hair to be used in the Geminoid's wig. He also requested that the creators leave DK's hair long so he was able have it cut by a Danish hairdresser for authenticity. Despite this attention to detail, DK's hair remains to be the area of the Geminoid he is most displeased with. 'I am thinking of getting another wig made as this one is not quite right.' Strangely, the wig is the only part of DK that is removed for transit; it travels in a custom-made box, crowning a life-size polystyrene replica of Scharfe's head.

Scharfe's relationship with his double is a complex one. He says he has experiences that are exclusive to his second body, and as he talks, he touches DK with a fussy fondness usually attributed to a parent; adjusting the hair and brushing some invisible crumbs from the suit. Scharfe admits that leaving DK alone reminds him of evenings spent with his blind father as a child, when, as he went to bed, he would switch the lights off, as his father had no need for them. This, he says, is just like leaving DK alone; he doesn't need the lights but there is still the sense that someone is there.

Uncanny valley

Geminoid DK has five levels of 'consciousness': sleeping, online, idle, lip synchronisation and face synchronisation. Each stage gives it a more human-like presence than the one before. Bringing it from sleep to online, DK sits up jerkily and opens its eyes. In its idle state, it fidgets and blinks as if alive, shoulders raising and falling slightly with imaginary breath. Lip and face synchronisation are less convincingly human, but impressive nonetheless.

DK is kitted out with embedded air valves and a control system which is linked via Bluetooth to an external air compressor. There is a 0.3 second delay between incoming audio and the Geminoid's movements in response. 'We have allowed for this in our experiments so that the audio and movements match up,' adds Scharfe. While in full facial synchronisation mode, DK's upper body movements and facial synchronisation mirror that of its operator, controlled via two computers complete with webcams.

There is no doubt that DK is shockingly human-like and, as such, evokes a mixed reaction from those who experience face-to-face contact: some are at ease with the robot and want to touch it; others stay well back. This divided response suggests that DK is teetering on the edge of the 'uncanny valley', a term coined by eminent Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Moro, in 1970. Moro's research found that as humans, we are comfortable with robots that look and act like robots; however, robots that look and act like humans toe a fine line between eliciting a positive reaction and being deemed repulsive.

Moro hypothesised that if robots crossed the line into 'uncanny valley' territory, they would not produce the required response for effective human-robot interaction.

What makes us human

Scharfe uses DK to carry out 'active experiments in fairly controlled environments'. His research addresses the issues surrounding body doubling, including the notion of presence and human tolerance in human robot interaction. A typical experiment might involve trying to establish trust between participants and DK. Results showed that participants who were allowed to touch DK in its sleeping state while they were introduced to it found it more trustworthy than those who were introduced to it but not allowed to touch.

A further area of research that Scharfe is interested in is Distributed Performance. He describes this as a combination of factors including the appearance of the Geminoid, the skills of the operator and the tolerance of the observer. His experiments in these areas attempt to narrow down just what kind of features that we, as humans, require the Geminoid to exhibit in order to produce an emotional effect.

Scharfe explains: 'A really simple example of this is the angle of the eyes. The earlier two Geminoids appear cross-eyed if you are sitting more than a few feet away from them. DK has a further focus point but we have found through our experiments that as humans, we have a tolerance of about an inch for direct eye contact. If we are outside that one-inch range, eye contact with the Geminoid would not be possible and, therefore, we would not be able make a connection with it.'

In conjunction with Ishiguro, Scharfe is also studying culture-specific reactions to the robot by carrying out identical experiments in different continents and cultures. While the two scientists agree on most things, Scharfe speaks of his disagreement with Ishiguro's belief that the perfect human is a robot because it doesn't age. 'Technology ages at a rate of knots. In five years, these robots will be surpassed by greater ones, much like mobile phones five years ago and now.' He doesn't comment, however, on whether he agrees with Ishiguro's sentiment.

The android reality

Despite his obvious enthusiasm, Scharfe is reluctant to answer specific questions about the future. How long will he keep DK? Has he ordered another? Does he envisage a DK with intelligence of its own?

Scharfe speaks of a recurring dream in which he is at a party in a hotel lobby. Some time passes before he realises he is an android and cannot have a drink, or dance with the other guests. More time passes and he realises everyone else is an android too. Is that how he views the future? After a long pause: 'My grandmother was born in 1896 into a world without electricity. What kind of world will my grandchildren live in? I cannot answer that but I do know that they will experience more interactions with more interfaces and, inevitably, more robots.'

For the time being, DK is Scharfe's only Geminoid, and given the process involved in transporting the robot, this probably isn't such a bad thing. 'He travels in advance of us, by freight, in a custom-made wooden box.' The inevitable image that this conjures up is of a coffin, but Scharfe is not comfortable with the thought. 'That's what the people back in the lab call it but I don't like that. To some extent, I am the robot and he is me.' *

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