Here at TEDx Brussels we like to think of ourselves as more than lifelike robots. We sent one of our correspondents to interview Henrik Schaerfe and his double, Geminoid DK to try and work out the difference.

What’s so amazing about robots and more specifically lifelike Androids?

The robot, and specifically the android, is the most iconic of all machines. It represents our curiosity and our dreams to produce something as strange and complicated as ourselves.

For a lot of people it’s looks weird having your alter ego android sitting next to you and smiling at the audience. Does it scare people ?

Yes, certainly, to some people, this is simply too much. But the vast majority of people who have actually met the geminoid quite easily comes to terms with him. First meetings are often driven by a combination of fear and fascination.

I saw the video of the Geminoid summit on YouTube. Experts are calling it a landmark in android science.  Can you tell me a bit about it?

The video was shot by Julie Rafn Abildgaard, who works with me at the Geminoid Lab at Aalborg U, and I think it nicely captures the strangeness and uniqueness of that special day. The video was shot at the end of a long day with experiments and we were all a bit tired and felt like having a bit of fun. We had also had a Japanese TV crew in the lab for several hours that day. We wanted to make the most of the fact that we had all three geminoids at our disposal. The technical setup for having three way conversations mediated by three androids was somewhat complicated, but it was really nice to see the DK with the other two androids.

Geminoid DK was born in 2011, his skillset is very human but also very basic. What kind of skills can we aspect in the next 12 months?

All of the movements and expressions of Geminoid DK are remote controlled by an operator with a computer. It’s means he hasn’t learn a lot so far. Can he learn ? All of the geminoids are designed as telepresence technologies and the remote control allows us investigate many aspects of communication between human and robot in great detail. This also means that the geminoids do not have any intelligence of their own. They cannot learn – but we can. And we do learn a lot with every experiment we make.

Most of the humanoid robots are built in Japan. Are the Japanese ahead of the rest of the world in this new industry and if so, why ?

There are research teams working with humanoids in many countries, including South Korea, Germany, UK, USA, and obviously Japan and Denmark. There is a long tradition in Japan for working with many kinds of robot, and I think that our Japanese colleagues are very skilled at utilizing previous research in humanoid robotics.  But it is also interesting to see how android science is interpreted differently in different cultures. In fact, one part of the geminoid-dk project has from the beginning been to see what happened when we took this technology to Western Europe. The reactions have been very good.

What can we learn from robots?

We learn a lot by studying human robot communication. In this case, we have a communication device with a body. One implication of this is that some of our communication models have to be re-thought. The physical presence of the robotic body changes the situation dramatically.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by humanoid robots?

It’s like looking at a reflection of yourself, and I think that for many people, the idea of having a machine that acts and looks like one of us is a kind of ultimate test of human ingenuity. The idea of making mechanical humans is very old. We find traces of that thought in ancient history from both Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Advances in computer science and robotics are bringing these dreams much closer to their realization. A thinking machine in the shape of a human being has been a source of inspiration to many scientists and artists for centuries. It serves as a measure and a constant reminder of what we are and where we might go. I bring that thought with me every time I walk into the geminoid lab and face the robot.

Interview by Henk de Hooge

Henrik Schaerfe and Geminoid DK will be at TEDx Brussels November 22

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