From Ex Machina to Robocop to Disneyland, humanoid robots have been the subject of science fiction blockbusters and amusement parks for generations, but thanks to Engineered Arts, things are getting uncomfortably real.
Each iteration is more human-like, and the latest ‘bot from Engineered Arts is one of the most realistic yet. A robotic head, dubbed Adran, now has 22 custom actuators that allow it to move its eyes and mouth to imitate a human, emulating the muscles in a human face.
Responses to Adran have ranged from impressed to horrified for anyone who’s seen an episode of HBO’s Westworld or read any number of sci-fi novels.
Engineered Arts posted the video above to its YouTube channel, although it admits that more work needs to be done before Adran is ready.
‘This is a small motion test for a Mesmer robot head,’ the company said. ‘Mesmer’ is what Engineered Arts describes as a system for building realistic humanoid robots.
‘This head and neck has 22 custom servo actuators – only 5 around the mouth which is not enough for really good lip sync – which is why it’s not speaking in this clip.’
Each Mesmer robot is designed and built from 3D in-house scans of real people, allowing us to imitate human bone structure, skin texture and expressions convincingly,’ it explained.
To create a Mesmer robot, Engineered Arts first uses a custom 3D scanning ‘Photogrammetry Rig’ to capture images of the subject from every angle. Photogrammetry is also used in visual effects — it’s the art and science of extracting 3D information from photographs.
Next, the 3D model is 3D printed as a mold. Silicone is injected into the mold, then fine details like hair and skin color are added by hand.
The engineering firm is located in Falmouth, UK, and recently also posted a humanoid robotic torso, Ameca. Its hands and arms also move in a very lifelike fashion, and from the videos, it apparently has some notion of what it’s doing and where its hands are.
WILL YOUR JOB BE TAKEN BY A ROBOT?
Physical jobs in consistent environments, including machine-operators and fast-food workers, are the most likely to be replaced by robots.
New York management consultancy firm McKinsey created a report on the future of work. They made predictions on the amount of jobs that would be lost to automation, and what professions were most at risk.
The reports say collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines.
This could displace large amounts of labor — for instance, in mortgages, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing.
Conversely, jobs in unpredictable environments are least are risk.
The report added: “Occupations such as gardeners, plumbers, or providers of child care and elder care will also generally see less automation by 2030, because they are technically difficult to automate and often command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.”
Ameca and Adran don’t walk, flip, or dance like a Boston Dynamics’ robot does. But they are creepier because they go deeper into the uncanny valley. They are attempting to pass as human.
Robots for entertainment
Engineered Arts focuses on creating humanoid robots for entertainment, Ameca and the Mesmers will likely be the center of attention at venues and events, rather than robots designed to do a specific job or take over humanity. If you want to see Ameca in real life, Engineered Arts says it’ll be on display at CES 2022 in January.
What if a theme park installs a humanoid robot and doesn’t tell the public? Has them take tickets, or perform? That would not only cost people jobs but could endanger the public when the robot malfunctions. And do people have the right to know if they are seeing a real human or a fake?
Movies frequently use “digital doubles”, a CG copy of an actor that replaces the real actor. The public usually doesn’t know this is being done. What if the whole movie is done that way? Or if it happens in real life? Again it puts actors out of work, but moves those jobs to more technically inclined hands. While the performance produced by an animator can be as wonderful as a physical actor, the spark of spontaneity that can make a good performance great is impossible when done that way. The public is being cheated out of a performance by a living person, where every performance is subtly unique.
Then there’s the brilliant award-winning science fiction series, Westworld. In that universe the public does know that the theme park they’re visiting is actually populated by androids, and they are told the robots feel nothing and can be freely abused. But the hosts (the robots) gain sentience and do not appreciate being abused. The androids reveal the worst in humans, how easily they become violent, and in some cases the hosts become more ethical than the humans that created them.
Maybe Westworld is becoming more real every day, and less a cautionary tale.
Ethics in the Age of Robots
Let’s say robots aren’t smarter than us today. It’s a safe assumption, for now.
Is it right, is it moral, to replace people with machines? Not simply to have a machine do a dangerous task, like heavy lifting, but meaningful service jobs, like customer service. Many of us have felt the frustration of dealing with a robot service rep on the phone. “Can I talk to a human?” is a phrase many of us have used when attempting to communicate with a non-human participant during a support call.
How about using a digital workstation to replace a symphony orchestra? Is it ethical to replace 100 musicians with 1 music engineer? Is it right to pass a fake orchestra off as a real one? Technology has brought the orchestra within reach of anyone, regardless of their ability to pay for living breathing human beings to perform their work, and that’s a very democratizing aspect of it, but at the same time, while there is no substitute for real musicians, will we become accustomed to not having them? How many real musicians can’t pay the rent as a result?
Could it be dehumanizing to bombard people with fake humans? Humans have a tendency to group bond with pretty much anything. People name their Roombas. What are the long term effects of working with an Adran?
No one knows all these answers, but it’s long past time to start thinking about them and doing research on the long-term effects. The humanoid robots are getting that good now.
David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.