Man and Machine: Dr Henrik Scharfe

Originally published in The Vancouver Sun
Wed Mar 23 2011
b y Brad Frenette

Last year, Dr. Henrik Scharfe, of Denmark’s Aalborg University, e-mailed an order for a new gadget to a Japanese manufacturer. It was a gadget with a considerable price tag, the kind of cost associated with luxury: an Italian sports car, a precious stone, a flight to space on Virgin Galactic.

Dr. Scharfe’s order was a rare thing. In his e-mail, sent last May, he asked for an android, one designed as a physical replica of the professor himself.

The order went to a Japanese company called ATR, and specifically to Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leader in robotics, and the inventor of robots he calls geminoids.

Starting in 2005, and working with the Tokyo-based company Kokoro, Ishiguro had already built two previous geminoids — androids designed to be lifelike replicas of their owners, and operated via a sophisticated motion capture system.

The Geminoid DK would be Ishiguro’s third project, and the first using a Caucasian model.

Despite being one of the few humans able to boast about having an android simulacrum, Dr. Scharfe, who serves as director of Aalborg University’s Center for Computer-mediated Epistemology, assures his motives are scientific.

As he awaits the delivery of his tailor-made android, the professor tells The Vancouver Sun in an eimail exchange how he got involved in the project, and how he hopes his geminoid will help open up new discussions about the emotional connections possible between man and machine.

Q: How did this project begin?

A: We have been following Professor Ishiguro’s work with the geminoids for years. What really fascinates me it is how easy it is to open really deep and interesting conversations with people about it. Regardless of background. It is very hard not to react to this kind of technology. But honestly, I thought about the implications for a long time before I decided to go ahead with it.

Q: Aside from the research, you now have an animated version of you. Any plans to send it anywhere in your stead?

A: We plan to send it to different places. For instance, we will feature the Geminoid on some national TV programs here in Denmark. We have two confirmed agreements with the Danish Broadcasting Cooperation at the moment — one in the vein of (popular BBC news show) HardTalk, with the Geminoid in the chair, and one more family-oriented program that I visited before (this time we’ll both be in the chair).

We are also taking it to a combined scholarly conference and art exhibition called IRL: In Real Life 2011 in Dublin this summer. I’ll give a keynote there, and guests and delegates will have the ability to interact with the Geminoid personally.

Also, we have an agreement with a shop owner here in Aalborg (a men’s fashion shop). The Geminoid will be in the shop window, and customers can interact with it inside the shop as well. Previous research on interactive technology in shopping windows mainly focused on screens facing the street. In this case, there is also an incentive to enter the shop.

Q: Did you have to pitch yourself as a model for this Geminoid? Was it a bidding process?

A: The robot is manufactured by Kokoro, the same company who built Geminoid HI-1 and Geminoid-F. Essentially, I sent them an email placing an order for a geminoid.

Because the geminoid is custom-built we had many conversations about the details, especially the face, during my visits at the factory, and also via email. This geminoid is the first with a Caucasian face, and that calls for several different design solutions, compared to the previous geminoids. Regarding the exterior, this has to do, of course, with details from the moulding of the head such as shape and size of the eyes, and density of the beard. Regarding interior, we considered especially the range of movement in the face and in the torso. Western people tend to use the upper half of the face significantly more than people of Asian origin, and we needed to make sure that this geminoid was equipped to perform the communicative tasks we wanted it to in a Western setting.

Including the equipment needed to control the geminoid in the lab, the price tag is in the area of $200,000 US.

Q: That’s a hefty price tag. Who paid the bill?

A: The Geminoid project is funded by a local foundation, who supports many different research activities, and by Aalborg University.

Q: How long did it take to finish?

A: It takes about six months to build such a geminoid. My first visit at the factory in Japan took place in September 2010. That’s when we did the moulds of my hands and face. Creating the face is an extremely complicated process with many steps, beginning with a complete mould of the entire head. I have come to greatly admire the artisans at Kokoro.

Q: Does the robot function with artificial intelligence (AI), or only via motion capture?

A: Not really AI, but there is some simulation going on here. What people will experience when they go into the geminoid lab is a mix of two things. First, some movements are pre-programmed, such as the breathing system and blinking at random intervals. Secondly, some movements are read directly from the face of the operator, and transferred onto the robot.

Q: You posted a video of the android on YouTube, and have been updating people throughout the process. Much of the public discussion about the Geminoid DK seems to tend toward the sarcastic, the fearful and the humourous; but there is serious research to be done with this robot.

A: Correct. We have used social media to show parts of the process, and this nearly finished result. To me, this is an important part of the project, and I enjoy taking this kind of research to a broader audience.


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