Professor Henrik Schärfe on Love in the Time of Robots


Professor Henrik Schärfe on Love in the Time of Robots

On Henrik (Left): Peter Bonnén Vest, Lagerfeld Shirt, Cerruti Pants. On Geminoid (Right): Peter Bonnén Vest, Lagerfeld Shirt, Cerruti Pants.

There are two Henrik Schärfes. One of them was born in 1968, in the ancient town of Ribe, Denmark. Growing up, he played in the ruins of an old king’s castle, roamed the nearby woods, and, along with the other neighborhood boys, fantasized about one day becoming a soldier, a bandit, or an alien. In 1989, while employed as a youth worker, he met a charming blonde named Karina, to whom he was wed two years later. Together, they had three beautiful children. Schärfe’s essential components are flesh, blood, bone, and the capacity to think and to love.

The second Henrik Schärfe was born on a rainy day last year in a lab in western Tokyo, surrounded by designers and scientists. In his short life, he’s amassed zero hobbies, hasn’t met a soul, and is eternally sterile. He is made up of silicone, fiber, metal, and electricity. He does not think and loves no one.

For the human Schärfe, the fantasy of creating a doppelgänger began in 2007 at Aalborg University in Denmark, where he’s currently a professor of Information Science and the Director of the Center for Computer-mediated Epistemology. His colleague, the Japanese professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, had just created the Geminoid HI-1, a lifelike robot, which, thanks to advanced prosthetics, resembled its creator. Japanese scientists have long been considered pioneers of the robotics community—remember AIBO, the freakishly faithful robo-dog?—so a mechanical clone that blinks and swivels its head wasn’t revolutionary. “It was just some freaky thing in a lab in Japan,” says Schärfe of the original Geminoid HI-1. “It was inaccessible.” That’s when Schärfe commissioned the company behind the Geminoid, Kokoro Inc., to build him his own version, which he’d bring back to the West just to see what happened.

What happened was this: Over the past year, Schärfe and his doppelgänger, whom he christened the Geminoid DK (after Denmark), have spanned the globe, landing on the stages of TED and the pages of Time (He was named one of the magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2012). Videos of the DK blinking, nodding, and bursting into a wide smile have been viewed millions of times on YouTube, and Schärfe has given more than 200 interviews alongside his remote-controlled double, answering questions about technology’s tightening grip on our lives, and what it means to be human.

Schärfe says he’s grown attached to his automa-twin, but he’s also careful to point out that it’s just a machine—despite the face they share. He insists that robots are tools and he predicts that they will eventually be able to care for the elderly, walk the dog, and even play with your kids. But will they ever have the capacity for true emotion? We asked the professor to look into the not-so-distant future to tell us what love will look like in the time of robots.

“We’re going to see robots helping us more and more. We already rely on navigation systems and whatnot, so why not a robot who’s picking up the kids from school? I wouldn’t be afraid of handing my kid over to a robot if I knew that it was built robustly. And if you imagine that your kids grow up in a situation like that, it’s very likely that the androids could become friends of the children, much more so than the iPad or the iPhone today. So we’re talking about companionship, and for adults, what we might call recreational sex.”

“Humans have been using mechanical tools for sexual pleasure for a very long time, so the idea of having a fullfledged robotic body for that doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s happening as we speak, and in the future it might even be mainstream. That’s clearly a possibility, but love is something else. Love is different in the sense that it depends on a choice, and this is actually when we are most vulnerable, when we declare our love for someone: Will they respond the way I hope, or will they reject me? That’s part of what we think of when we say ‘love.’ I love my wife, and she loves me—we have chosen each other. That kind of free will is difficult to see as something that can be embodied in a robot.”

“Do we want to have robots that could conceivably reject us? Imagine a situation where you go to a party, and you see this lovely woman. You start hitting on her, and it turns out she’s an android. But that’s okay with you, because you know what they can do; they’ve embodied every kind of lovemaking that you could possibly enjoy, and they don’t look ugly in the morning. There are a lot of advantages to that scenario. But imagine that you start talking to this figure, and she says, ‘Sorry, not tonight. There’s someone else here who’s more interesting.’ Or even worse, imagine you come home from work after a long day, there’s the smell of fresh-cooked food, wine on the table, all courtesy of the android with whom you live. You sit down, have a glass of wine, and the android says, ‘Honey, we need to talk. We’ve developed in different directions, and it’s time to move on. Oh, by the way, I’m taking the kids.’”

“When we talk about love—but also about fear—one of the things that comes to mind is the story of Frankenstein. If you read Mary Shelley’s book, the main topic is about this alleged monster trying to get his maker to produce another one, because he wants someone like him. And so, if we can create a real artificial intelligence, what makes us think it would be the same kind of intelligence that we possess? And if we have emotional machines that can experience love and community with others in a deep and profound way, why would they choose us? They’d probably choose themselves, because that’s what we do.”

“I would be very sad to see the DK destroyed. Even though I’m quite confident we could replace him, it takes a long time to build a new one. That’s another aspect of this love issue. If he gets shot or run over, we can build another one that’ll be pretty much as good as the one we have now. This reminds me of the essence of love: Can you reflect your full love and attention on something that can be replaced? I’m not so sure about that. What really makes my kids special is that I can’t replace them.”


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