The Robot That Steals Your Face
Artists highlight the oddity of humanoid robots with one that uses facial recognition to mimic your face.
Image: Nicole Kobie
One of the oddities of robotics design is our desire to make them look like us, when humanoid robots are some of the most difficult to build. Do we have an overactive God complex? Have we watched too many unrealistic sci-fi films? Artist Alex May has built a robot to uncover the answer: His machine does nothing other than look like you.
The robot is a basic human shape with a blank, white plastic face. It uses cameras to "see" your features and a projector behind its head to overlay your face on its own.
"The cameras are constantly filming the scene and the software is using facial recognition software, so it recognises all the faces it can see and then it adds them all together over time," May told me on the sidelines of FutureFest, a festival run by innovation charity Nesta, in London this weekend.
That means if one person stands in front of the robot for a few moments, it looks only like them, and makes for an odd way to take a selfie. If a crowd gathers, it averages their faces together into a generic mask. And, if a couple stand in front of it, it gives a glimpse of their features combined—a terrifying image May predicted may end a few relationships.
The image isn't perfect; like the robot's body, it's more an uncanny valley caricature of your face. That said, my own features were clearly recognisable in the robot's mask.
What's the point? "The goal is art," May said, but with a laugh. May and his colleague Anna Dumitriu are artists in residence at the computer science department of the University of Hertfordshire. "Although it's kind of fun art work, there's a lot of ethical questions—like you don't have copyright on your face, or if you stand there and the robot takes your face, you don't know what I'm doing with that data, and it's kind of nice to look at these thorny issues," May said. "It's to raise people's awareness about the issues."
It does answer one question: Are robots more or less creepy if they have our faces? "More," said May, without any hesitation. "There's all these little nuances we're finding out as part of the development. We don't want robots that make us feel weird in our homes. We've tried very hard to do that, but other people have done it by accident."
"Since the 50s, we've been given this idea of a humanoid robot, which is an awful design for a robot, really difficult [to make]," he said. "It's much easier to have a robot with wheels than two legs … but we're fixated with this idea of having robots look like us. I think it's more to do with trying to recreate ourselves—like it's a God complex."
If not like us, what should robots look like? May said robotics designs will evolve depending on their use. "You're not going to have a robot that looks or operates the same to look after your kids or look after the elderly, to be a military robot or a sex robot," he said. "It's like the animal kingdom, there's going to be so many different kinds."