NaoMi during her second stay in Rotterdam | © Goethe-Institut
Science fiction and the question of whether a robot can express itself through body posture...NaoMi during her second stay in Rotterdam
Harmen and Zelda, two programmers from Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands, describe the time they spent with NaoMi in the spring of this year (2021):
“I am writing now with NaoMi sitting next to me. Who would have thought that a machine could transform into a little living being so easily? At least that's how it feels. Maybe it's also because we feel more connected in turbulent times.
For a whole month, chaos and amazement followed upon each other at a swift pace, because although our research question remained the same, our method took a u-turn in the first week.
And thus, our research question: Can a robot express itself through body postures?
The beginning was very hopeful because it's remararkble to think that we can definitely communicate faster with NaoMi through body language because she has a body. What happens when you meet a little robot like that for the first time is that you make eye contact. And this despite the fact that NaoMi doesn't even see through her eyes. You constantly feel the urge to express yourself through your body language. I stroke NaoMi's head gently. Harmen pats her on the back when she has done something right. But does it work the other way round? Do we understand NaoMi better through her body language?
But how does one approach this issue? As one would expect from programmers, we immediately started abstracting the problem. What does understanding mean? For this we need two inner states. The state of the one who wants to be understood and the state of the one who needs to understand.
Understanding comes about when one can put oneself in the other's shoes. So that's the most important thing for us: to create an inner state for the robot. Once we have that, we make a connection between that inner state and NaoMi's body. Then we let this play itself out. And voila, the NaoMi's laptop was supposed to be a treasure trove of skills she had already learned on her journey through Europe. We were intensely curious.
We had no idea what the people who had met NaoMi before had experienced and whether the whole thing had ended well at all. What if NaoMi wasn't as friendly as she had appeared in broad daylight? Now, in my dark, silent room, I wondered what would happen if someone had programmed her to harm people. Was it that much fun to travel from one place to another only to be forced to perform one trick or another? Were we not aware that someone had taught her to fight? And how did I know for sure that she couldn't rebel on her own? By now I had certainly heard enough science fiction stories not to trust a robot so quickly. I crept quietly down the stairs in the dark. It was better to put her in her box, which could only be opened from the outside with great effort. And to be quite sure that she wouldn't suddenly stand up, I put a few more pot lids on the box. That way I would at least wake up if something unusual happened.
But morning came without further ado. NaoMi doesn't seem to be a monster, and after that first night I saw no reason to distrust her any more. Only the programming work was still not progressing.
We intended to use some kind of object recognition that NaoMi could use as a basis for her dance movements. Only the way we wanted to use it was a bit different from what the engineers at Softbanks had envisaged. And then we also put in quite a research effort to understand exactly how the functions worked. It was quite a struggle when we wanted to do something different from what had been set up for us.
In the end, we decided that maybe we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but instead use the tools we had been given. Maybe we shouldn't decide NaoMi's inner state ourselves, but stay out of the robot's mind. We should get to know her from the outside and not try to change her. Maybe we simply had to go through all that to discover that we can teach her to dance, just as people teach each other by learning to understand each other's bodies and not manipulate each other's minds”.
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