CÍAN NIHILL

A WELL-fluffed pillow under a blanket is about as close as most of us have come to turning an inanimate object into something others might believe to be a real person.

Dr Henrik Scharfe, however, has something a little more convincing – a robot, known as a geminoid, designed to look exactly like him and controlled through a computer system to replicate his facial movements.

Despite the obvious advantage of having something to sit through every boring function for you for the rest of your life (nodding and smiling with an expression of interest on its face), Dr Scharfe has more academic interests in the robot’s capabilities.

Director of Aalborg University Centre for Computer-Mediated Epistemology in Denmark, he is concerned with how computer technology has changed the way we perceive and conceptualise human existence and understanding.

Describing the geminoid, he said: “It is a thinking tool and it raises the question of what does it mean to be human?”

A common answer to the question of human identity, he said, was that two things make up a human – a genetic code and the sum of life experiences.

“Now we have something that looks like it has a genetic code and it also looks like it has some kind of experience, it is in the image of a middle-aged man with grey hairs, lines on the face.”

If we have machines that can do that, the discussion that Dr Scharfe is hoping to spark is, how does that change how humans identify themselves as a unique thing?

Although the geminoid is not itself a thinking machine (it requires someone to control it), Dr Scharfe is interested in the questions that naturally arise from being confronted with advances in technology.

“If we can have machines that are thinking and you define yourself as the thinking animal of the planet, where does that leave you? This is precisely a matter of identity.”

On a less abstract note, he hopes that the geminoid will reveal more about how people react with human-like computers. This could be used to make people more comfortable with machinery that improves quality of life.

The geminoid is on display until Sunday in the Irish Museum of Contemporary Art in Dublin as part of the In Real Life 2011 exhibition, which runs until August 15th.

It is the only one of its kind in Europe, with only two others in the world, both in Japan.