How would you feel if you met Danish Professor Henrik Scharfe and then moments later were introduced to another Henrik Scharfe, this time an almost identical android? You can now actually do this, courtesy of a new Geminoid bot that points the way to our robotic future.
A product of Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro, the Geminoid series robots have always been a weird headline-grabbing affairs due to their incredibly convincing human "skins," but the latest version--Geminoid DK--may have advanced the technology the furthest it's ever been. When you see the bot in action, and glance at its prototype, the real Professor Scharfe, you'll be hard pressed to not drop your jaw.
Scharfe is an associate professor at Aalborg University in Denmark and is director of the center for Computer-Mediated Epistemology, which pretty much explains what all this robotics tech is all about--Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge, centering on the question of what's "true" knowledge versus "false" or "inadequate" knowledge. Scharfe intends to use the robot to probe "emotional affordances" between robots and humans, as well as "blended presence" (a partly digital, partly realistic way for people to telepresence themselves, demonstrated by weird prototypes like the Elfoid robot-phone we covered the other day). The device will also be used to look at cultural differences in how people interact with robots--for example in the U.S. robots may be perceived as threatening, or mere simple tools, but in Japan they're increasingly accepted as a part of society.
The science here is based on the fact that Geminoid DK is amazingly like Scharfe himself--right down to his hairstyle and color, shoulder shrugs and glances.
It's controlled by a remote operator using a computer for now, which suits Scharfe's experimental needs but it's perfectly plausible to imagine future versions of the bot mounted on telepresence robot wheels, with a Kinect-like sensor copying the real user's moves onto the remote robot's body (how would you feel about chatting to a device like that around the watercooler?).
And this is where Geminoid DK is something you should pay attention to. We've mentioned uncanny valley before--the weird conceptual zone between completely obvious "fake" reality and a completely convincing one. Robots are increasingly part of our daily lives, and they will be more and more commonplace as tricks like telepresence become more normal, but most robots we encounter are clearly "fake" mechanized constructions.
Geminoid DK is made of existing commercially available technology today--it doesn't take much thought to see that in five years such a robot would be even more convincing. Bolt Geminoid's "skin" onto a robot like the newly revealed Boston Dynamics Petman (pictured on the right), and what do you get? A robot butler, solider, telepresence droid or (potentially, if artificial intelligence steps-up) co-worker who looks almost like a real person. Can you say "skin job"?
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[Image by Geminoid]