It has been a couple of days since videos were published of Kokoro Co. Ltd.’s latest Geminoid, built for Denmark’s Aalborg University, and it’s already generating enormous buzz online. It’s only a matter of time before the next mainstream news cycle when even more videos and articles will be posted about the company’s first non-Japanese android. Personally, I’ve never been very fond of the Geminoid or Actroid robots, as I feel they’re only a shade more sophisticated than the animatronic doubles made for Hollywood movies. The latest examples are leaps and bounds better than some of the earlier ones (like the first Actroid), and they’re definitely in a higher class of realism than those of the U.S.-based Hanson Robotics.
The Geminoid DK is probably realistic enough to fool the uninitiated (children), or when seen in a still photograph with just the right lighting, but IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman goes so far as to say that at first he didn’t know if what he was looking at was a real robot or just a person doing a good impression of one. Hyperbole aside, the robot has a long way to go before it could pass for a person, particularly when details like the eyelids blinking causes the whole brow to furrow. Check out what I mean in the following video – it looks as though its forehead has been stapled to its eyelids.
Given the importance of the eyes as a focal point for the face, you’d think such a major oversight would have been corrected before final delivery. And don’t get me started on the subtlety required for believable lip-synch, which simply isn’t possible given the current state of the art. To be clear, I’m not trying to disparage the fine work of the artisans at Kokoro, who are at the forefront of this sort of thing. I just want to point out that even motionless human faces are hard to pull off.
In the film special effects industry, breathing life into those faces is even more daunting. It requires an army of animators massaging dozens of facial control points frame by frame, squeezing seconds of animation from hours of hard work drawing directly from video of an actor’s performance. It will take major technological breakthroughs in synthetic skin, actuation, and control to roll past the uncanny valley and into the realm of believability. This is further reinforced by the Geminoid DK’s YouTube channel, which shows a composite image of the internal mechanisms of the robot with a photograph of the real Associate Professor Henrik Scharfe (tsk tsk – that’s cheating!).
There are all sorts of possible problems when dealing with realistic androids, but consider something as banal as the maintenance of something with artificial skin and hair. Like anything, these artifacts will have to be cleansed and dusted from time to time. Given even the current complexity of the Geminoid DK, it no doubt requires a careful (and perhaps professional) hand just to keep its appearance as-is. If left untouched, what was once a fairly realistic double will soon deteriorate, and because of its realism will fall even further into the uncanny valley. Rubber skin will tear (especially around the eyes and mouth), and hair will gradually fall out from people patting it’s head. If you think these robots look like zombies now, wait until you can see bits of their skeletal mechanisms showing through, or where the skin has been repaired with super glue! By contrast, a less realistic mechanical robot can be shined up relatively easily. Sure, it may rust or the paint may chip, but these are more easily remedied than a silicone nose or ear that have become damaged.
Perhaps even more worrisome is whether or not you believe these types of robots can enlighten our understanding of what it means to be human – the Geminoid project’s primary goal. More videos and a few photos follow after the break.