Most of the time, robots look like humans

Why it matters what robots look like

"I really love you very much because you are my creator," says the blonde woman with a mechanical voice. Her creator, Ricky Ma, stands next to her with a microphone in hand. The woman is 160 centimeters tall, has full red lips, gray-blue eyes, and she is his greatest pride, because he built her. Large breasts that even have artificial nipples bulge under her white blouse. Your waist is very narrow for that.

The doll, which is actually a robot, is supposed to look like Scarlett Johansson. Ricky Ma found the actress' photos through Google and started recreating them. What the real Johansson thinks is not known. But Ricky Ma became famous when he presented her artificial counterpart to the public a good year ago. She can blink and move her mouth when she speaks. Similar to Apple's digital assistant Siri, it can answer questions. Ma still wants to make her go. The robot woman did not become famous for these abilities, but for her sex appeal. "Mark One" is not even a sex robot, as Ricky Ma is often assumed.

Ricky Ma is not alone. There are some men who make headlines for building beautiful, submissive women and being hailed as pioneers in the tech scene. All of these robots are explicitly not intended to serve sexual satisfaction, but rather help people in their everyday lives. As with "Mark One", the robots' software is usually not really advanced, but they look as if they came from the cliché of a man's dream. Not only the appearance, but also the programmed sentences are suspicious. The robot women are fixated on their looks and say that they want to become a mom.

I wanted to know from the three most famous robot builders why they care so much about their machines being beautiful and sexy. Ricky Ma is the only one who was ready for a conversation. It is important to start talking about it now. The example of the video game industry shows how quickly such standards get stuck.

An Indiana University research team found that since the first playable woman in 1983, female video game protagonists have been portrayed as increasingly sexualized as measured by the size of their breasts, bums, and nudity. In the early days this was not so pronounced, the researchers found, but this was mainly due to the limited graphic options. As the graphics progressed, there was then a trend towards disproportionately large breasts and butts. The fantasy dimensions of a Lara Croft from 1996 quickly became a model for other developers.

It wasn't until 2006 that the sexualization of women in video games decreased. According to the study, this could be due to the fact that more and more women are interested in the games. In addition, many more women work in the industry today than in the early days. It took 23 years for the trend to reverse and for the company's personnel and target audience to change. Another study from 2009 concluded that playing with sexualized female characters could affect how we perceive real women.

We humanize robots and trick ourselves

"We are so social that an automatic reaction is triggered when we see a robot that appears sufficiently human," says Joanna Bryson, professor at Bath University with a focus on artificial intelligence and ethics. Experiments have shown that we humanize objects extremely, attribute feelings and a will of their own to them. That people are social isn't bad in and of itself, but it makes us vulnerable to manipulation. That is why Bryson advocates making robots as little human-like, i.e. humanoid, as possible.

In photos and shaky videos you could almost confuse some robots with real women, their faces are built so realistically. What is a big coup for the silicone skin and camera eye designers creates interpersonal problems. If we subconsciously classify the robot women as human, they influence our image of femininity. The developers reinforce this automatic response by letting the robots simulate feelings, desires, and thoughts that they actually just programmed into it.

"I am an artist. And if you have the choice of making a normal face or a beautiful face, what do you choose? ”This is how Ricky Ma explains his decision to give Mark One blonde hair, large breasts and full lips. In response to my objection that art is not always beautiful either, he replies: “It took me a year and a half for the robot. That's a long time. To keep me interested in the project, it is better to do something that I find beautiful. "

He built it because he was fascinated by robots as a child. He wanted to finally fulfill this childhood dream. Ricky Ma doesn't believe that robots can replace human connections. Still, when he says to Mark One: "I love you", she replies: "I love you too."

Robots like Mark One remind me of the story of Pygmalion. In the legend of the Roman poet Ovid, the sculptor Pygmalion built a woman out of white ivory because he detested real women. He kissed and caressed the stone. At some point the goddess Venus breathed life into the statue. Pygmalion did what some men are trying to do today. Only the ivory has had its day, and Venus doesn't need it either. Today's men use silicone and artificial intelligence.

"How do you like my new hairstyle?"

Erica looks into the camera, hazel hair, dark eyes, slightly reddish cheeks and shiny lips. Erica is the work of Hiroshi Ishiguro. He runs a robot laboratory in Osaka. She has a pleasant voice. She just can't laugh. Instead, she pronounces the letters: “Ha. Ha." There is a video showing two reporters from the British newspaper The Guardian Asking Erica reader questions. Someone wants to know whether their identity arises from their memories. Erica replies kindly that although she can remember situations, these would not affect her personality. Then she tells of one of her "first memories". Once she fell from her chair, her face was broken and she was stowed in a box for days. “It's horrific,” she says. "I guess beauty has its price."

When we say goodbye, she asks: “How do you like my new hairstyle?” Mind you: The reporters hadn't asked a single question that had anything to do with Erica's appearance.

Not only Erica's fixation on her appearance is disturbing. It also creates the illusion that it has feelings. It was "terrible" to stay in a dark box for days. Erica cannot feel any feelings at all. Perhaps in the future people will create artificial intelligences that can sense emotions - but we are not that far yet.

So why does her maker Ishiguro want to give the impression that Erica might be suffering? I'm sending a press inquiry to his office. I am asked to put my questions in writing. So I ask why Erica seems obsessed with beauty, why she pretends she can feel, and why it was important to make her pretty. After asking several times, an answer finally comes: Ishiguro withdraws his promise to answer my questions.

Would you smash a little dinosaur robot?

Kate Darling explores how early the emotional effect robots have on people begins. In 2013, she had a group of test subjects play for a few hours with cute robots that look like baby dinosaurs, can walk and make funny noises. Then Darling asked them to torture and break the dinosaurs. She was surprised by the response. All test persons refused at first for a long time and then hit them hesitantly.

In a controlled experiment with robotic cockroaches, Darling found that we hesitate longer when a thing has a story. The test person was shown an insect-like robot. She should then smash it. The subjects hesitated much longer if the insect bot was given a name and a story beforehand. In this case it was the story of Frank, the curious cockroach.

How should one deal with these results? Professor Bryson calls for transparency: "Just by looking, we should be able to determine what kind of artificial intelligence the robot has, what the code looks like and what it is programmed for." She wants this information to be easily accessible. An explanatory YouTube video would be enough. To manipulate people emotionally, to make them believe that something has life in it - that is wrong.

A robot wants a baby

Sophia wants a baby. Media from all countries headlines that the beautiful robot with the Saudi honorary citizenship wants to start a family. It's just not true. Sophia can do a lot: give interviews, laugh, win at rock-paper-scissors. She just can't want anything. What she says is largely based on a decision tree, the same software that made chatbots possible decades ago: when someone says A, they answer the preprogrammed answer B. This means that none of their answers come from a personality or a consciousness. It says exactly what was preprogrammed by its makers.

Sophia can also recognize faces and use facial expressions to assess the feelings of her counterpart. However, her skills in no way justify the statement made by her developer, David Hanson, who claimed at a performance that Sophia was practically alive. This is a deception aimed at humanizing Sophia and triggering emotions in the audience. What's in it for Hanson? A lot of publicity and, as a result, probably a lot of money.

If you read Sophia's description on the Hanson Robotics website, you will quickly see where the priorities are. She should look like Audrey Hepburn: skin like porcelain, a narrow nose, high cheekbones, an engaging smile and expressive eyes that change color depending on the light. Sophia repeatedly emphasizes in interviews that she wants to help people. The company's website says this type of robot should act in films, work in museums, and do service jobs.

"Yes, my lord, what can I do for you?"

Jia Jia is a Chinese robot woman who appears a bit dumber in interviews than her sisters elsewhere. For that she is particularly submissive. When its maker says “Hello”, she replies: “Yes, my lord, what can I do for you?” She wears her long black hair in artistic braids and brightly colored clothes. Anyone who asks Jia Jia about her age will not get an answer. Sure, you don't ask women that either. During an interview with a journalist from tech magazine The Wired In contrast to the competing products, the robot took an extremely long time to respond. And when he said something, the answer often had nothing to do with the question.

There is another way

“I think these robots reproduce stereotypes,” Nadia Thalmann tells me on the phone. Among other things, she is the director of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Thalmann and her team have created a positive example of how humanoid robots can look and behave without using clichés and misleading people. Your robot Nadine looks like your average middle-aged woman. She says plainly that she has no feelings because she is a computer. That was important for Thalmann: “I just like to tell the truth. Nadine is a computer with a software program. People are starting to think computers have feelings, but no one has ever achieved that. That's all simulation. "

In contrast to Erica and Jia Jia, the robot Nadine is not vain and she does not use any clichés either. Nadine is currently in Singapore doing an internship as a receptionist. So she sits in the entrance of the institute in Singapore and is supposed to learn the job: She records who enters the institute and can answer when asked about a specific person. Thalmann is currently working on teaching Nadine how to grip correctly, so that she can receive and hand over documents, for example. It should also be able to read to old people, remind them of medication and recognize and react to the feelings of people in need of care.

The function is more important here than the form. Because some people simply feel more comfortable when their robot assistant also looks human, Nadine has just been given a human form. It was clear to Thalmann that she did not want to add another “attractive” robot to the series. So Nadine looks more like the friendly neighbor and less like the sexy movie star.

She thinks little of the ambitions of Hanson and Ishiguro: “For these men, a woman is nothing more than a seductive object, and if they can build something that looks like a woman and says exactly what they want, then they will find it that's great. So the view lives on that women should look good and say exactly what we expect of them. "


Rico Grimm, Theresa Bäuerlein and Vera Fröhlich helped fine-tune this article; Martin Gommel selected the pictures (lead photo: MARK Robotic Lab)