Philip K. Dick famously considered whether androids dream of electric sheep. My question is far more direct: If you stab a robot in the face, will it then try to kill you?
When I interviewed the robot Ameca during a demo at CES, I got my answer: No, but the face it makes when you get up in its personal space is just as fascinating and intriguing.
If you are on the Internet, you’ve probably seen Ameca. The gray-faced, humanoid robot flashed its way into the public consciousness in late 2021 when a video of its facial expression went viral on social media. Elon Musk replied to the video in one word “Yikes”. Chrissy Teigen retweeted that to her 13 million followers in four words: “absolutely. damn. not.”
But while Ameca had some people running towards the hills, its creators at the British company Engineered Arts were delighted.
“We were incredibly surprised,” said Morgan Roe, Engineered Arts’ chief operating officer. “Overnight, it became a sensation. We got 24 million views on a Twitter post.”
Roe bases it on Ameca’s not-quite-robotic, not-quite-human appearance. Its body is made entirely of metal and plastic, its face is deliberately asexual and non-human gray. It has 17 individual motors inside the head that control its movements and expressions. But its facial features are surprisingly vibrant and emotionally charged. And it is this combination of artificial and lifelike that Roe says speaks to our collective vision of what humanoid robots will look like in the future.
“We’ve all seen it in the movies, we’ve all seen iRobot and AI Artificial Intelligence,” he says. “And suddenly it’s right.”
Roe speaks to me via Zoom from the show floor at CES, where Ameca is being shown for the first time to crowds in latex meat. Even though I see Roe and his robot over a Zoom call, it’s hard to shake off how genuine Ameca looks. I find myself distracted. I no longer speak to the very friendly human Englishman I was to interview. My eyes go over to Ameca’s face to see how it responds to our conversation. A wrinkled eyebrow back, a pull of a smile. Ameca is not a human, and yet …
This is not the first spooky human robot Engineered Arts has released. For the past four years, the company has created a series of lifelike Mesmer robots and shown them to conference guests on crowded exhibition floors.
“Every Mesmer robot is designed and built from 3D-in-house scans by real people, allowing us to mimic human bone structure, skin texture and expression in a compelling way,” the Engineered Arts website tells potential customers. “Mesmer is designed to be modular, so you can remove the head with one click and without tools and replace it with another.”
Princess Mombi, eat your heart out.
Ameca is not intended for the conference community. It does not, and it is not something you can pre-order now as a domestic worker. Roe says it will take at least 10 years before a robot like Ameca “wanders among us” as a service robot. Sure, Walking Among Us sounds like the title of the documentary that will ultimately chronicle the decline of humanity, but we have another decade before we have to worry about it.
Ameca also does not have Mesmer’s flesh-colored skin tones. Instead of the lifelike human hair on Mesmer’s head, Ameca has a transparent plastic skull. We see the joints and parts of the robot. Ameca is still without a doubt “other”, and it is deliberate.
“What we found was when you’re trying to make it look ultra lifelike [like] our second Mesmer line, it looks a little more eerie because it’s right in the eerie valley, “says Roe.” But when we created Ameca, we pulled it backwards out of the eerie valley. “
Of course, while Roe is saying these things to me over our Zoom call, Ameca answers. Raises eyebrows at people passing by. Subtly moves its lips (or more precisely, the actuators around its oral cavity) as if trying to mimic the speech of its human creator.
“Because it looks less human …” says Roe, while Ameca smiles into the middle distance.
“Because it’s plastic, because it’s metal …” says Roe, and Ameca looks over at him with a vague smile.
“Because it’s of gray skin, it’s suddenly …” Roe waves her hand near Ameca’s face, and the robot leans back in horror.
“Oh, hey,” Roe says, making eye contact with the man, leaning back in fright. He has lost his mind.
“It’s sudden, uh, less – less scary.”
I am struck by the urge to ask the question I have been thinking all along. The question I have wanted to ask since I first saw it the video of Ameca in the lab, with its engineer / programmer bent over a laptop and another identical Ameca moving slowly in the background.
“When you’re in your offices and working late into the night on some extra lines of code, do you ever do a double take or have to check behind you, at the robot, to see if it blinked at you?” I’m asking.
“Actually no,” Roe says. “When you work with it from day to day, all of a sudden, it’s definitely a robot. And a lot of the time you’ll see one of the engineers walk through the workshop, not with a robot, with only his head. And you have to distance yourself from “That’s a human being. Otherwise it’s really creepy.”