May 25, 2011 / 5:26 PM / in 6 years

Double take: Robot twin examines role of technology

AALBORG, Denmark (Reuters) - How much interaction with a robot are we prepared for and is that interaction different if the robot appears to be a person?

These are just some of the questions we need to be able to answer, according to Danish psychologist Henrik Scharfe.

His department at Denmark’s Aalborg University is now the proud owner of Geminoid DK, a robot which so closely resembles him it borders on the surreal.

“It’s a little bit like science fiction but without the fiction part,” he said sitting next to a carbon copy of himself, sporting a similar suit and shirt and his own hair.

It is the third robot of the Geminoid series, a line of androids designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University and his team at Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) in Nara.

“By doing something as dramatic or as extreme as this it really makes people think about the role of technology in their everyday life,” Scharfe said.

Scharfe says we need a better understanding of human robot interactions and ultra-realistic robots may help us learn.

“Imagine you enter a restaurant and the waiter is a robot and he picks up your order,” ask Scharfe. “There are times when you don’t want to engage with a waiter and this would do the job just fine.”

He says we are increasingly exposed to automation of one kind or another and he wants to know how far we are prepared to go.

”Imagine for instance that you have someone like this sitting at a kindergarten telling stories -- and then the robot will tell your stories over and over and over and over again.

Now, people usually object to this idea and then I ask them are you happy with a TV or DVD set doing the same thing and they typically say Oh, yes. So, I‘m interested in what makes up the difference here,” he said.

Studies have shown that we can engage with robots on an emotional level.

In Japan, a robotic baby seal named Paro has been shown to have therapeutic effects and can improve the emotional lives of some older people who enjoy holding and stroking the device.

So it would appear that the shape of the interface affects the way we communicate -- a cute and cuddly baby seal is acceptable it seems but robots that appear to be people?

“Remember the first time you saw an ATM machine. For most people that was appalling,” said Scharfe.

“So for some cases I want to go into the bank and have a conversation at other times I‘m perfectly happy with the ATM in the street or the robotic waiter at the restaurant, or the robotic receptionist or the storytelling machine in the kindergarten or the visiting friend at a hospital bedside.”

Geminoid DK is manipulated silently with compressed air, allowing its torso and head, including eyes, mouth and facial expressions to copy what Scharfe does in front of a web cam.

Its movements are 0.3 of second behind the original and a delay can make the robot appear to be talking to the person in front of it.

This summer the robot will be placed in a shop and begin “interacting” with an unsuspecting public. Scharfe will be in the background, answering any questions the robot is asked through a headset and observing the results.

He said they are also considering an experiment where an employee is sacked by Geminoid DK to see what kind of reactions are triggered by using a robot for such a task.

As Scharfe walks along the corridors his colleagues whisper “Is it HIM?” as he passes.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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