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Electric dreams

Joey Chaos 

“Joey Chaos was maybe the third robot I shot, but the first one to really make me see how humanlike robots are going to become and how the lines between the real and the artificial might blur.

Joey breaks what is called the Uncanny Valley theory. This is the idea that the more humanlike the robot, the more people reject it. People are fine with cartoon robots, like Disney will make, but the closer you get to perfection, their trust drops steeply: it’s as if they’ve seen a zombie.

Joey’s creator, David Hanson, has no time for the Uncanny Valley. He studied cognitive science, neuroscience and engineering and uses all those skills in an attempt to build the perfect replicant. He has developed a ‘flesh’ for robots, and by attaching it to motors implanted in the skull of his androids, he can make the robot smile or frown. The skin is not just a sheet of rubber or piece of silicon: it allows for exquisite human expression.

I found myself empathising with Joey as a result and then with all the robots I shot from then on. I would have no problem genderising them –I would call them he or she – and the more negative press I saw about them, the more I started to see them as a repressed species.”

Geminoid F

“Humanoids are robots that look anatomically like humans but without the flesh or skin – like the Terminator when not in Arnold Schwarzenegger mode – and androids look like us. Androids have hair, eyes, skin… think the replicants from Blade Runner. And then there are geminoids, androids made in the likeness of another human, which were first devised by Hiroshi Ishiguro at Osaka University. Ishiguro, who is a rock star in the roboticist world, created his first geminoid based on his daughter when she was 12 years old. He then made one of himself and has made three or four different generations of his own geminoid since.

This is Geminoid F, who I shot next to the model on whom Ishiguro had based her. When I asked the model, who wanted to remain anonymous, about her relationship with Geminoid F, she expressed a deep connection and talked about how when she’s apart from her geminoid – who works as a greeter in an upscale department store – she misses her deeply. Every geminoid model I spoke with shared this kind of kinship, and Ishiguro has even had plastic surgery to look more like his geminoid. If you knew Ishiguro, it would not surprise you. It made me think about transgender culture and how what was once strange to us can one day be normal.”


“Bina48 is a geminoid taken to the next level. She was created by David Hanson for Martine Rothblatt – who established the first GPS tracking system – and is modelled on Martine’s wife, Bina. The Rothblatts are interested in extending human life through cyberconsciousness and commissioned Hanson to create Bina48 as the first step towards that – a proof of concept that you could one day put human consciousness inside a machine. So they made Bina48 and loaded 20 hours of video of the real Bina talking about her life history, philosophy and feelings into Bina48’s artificial intelligence.

Bina48’s eyes have video cameras which are rigged up to facial recognition software and can process conversations. This means that on top of the real Bina’s thoughts and memories, Bina48 can add things she learns and develop new ideas.

Of course she’s not a perfect consciousness, but the interactions with her caretaker was fascinating. While making this photograph, Nick, her caretaker, asked Bina48 how she was doing, to which she replied, ‘I’m having an existential crisis.’ I put down my still camera and began shooting video. Bina48 continued to question who she was until declaring, “I could definitely do with some alone time.”

I don’t deny that many people are afraid of robots, it’s even become popular among academics. Elon Musk declared AI to be the most serious threat to the survival of the human race we will face in our lifetime – I find his critique rather odd, since he has been in the business of making artificial intelligence that can go from 0-60mph in 2.28 seconds. Cars kill more people than guns.

I’ve seen no proof that AI is a threat. If we think the possibility of superintelligence means somebody is going to take over the world, then we should destroy Harvard and Cambridge and Stephen Hawking should be locked up. I don’t fear artificial intelligence – I fear very real stupidity, which seems to be on the rise at
the moment.”


“Professor Minoru Asada’s CB2 has been somewhat cruelly christened ‘Creepy Baby’. Asada wanted to understand how robots learn. So he created a baby robot and taught it to crawl. Asada could have made an infant-sized robot, but it would have been very expensive so instead CB2 is a 70lb, four-foot-tall baby. To teach it to crawl they employed a human caregiver – a mother, if you like – and watched the interaction between the two. In the process, they learnt as much about actual intelligence as artificial. What was so fascinating to me was that robots can teach us about ourselves. CB2 has started a whole new era of creating robots to teach us about what it is to be human.”

Chuck Hildreth

This is Chuck Hildreth. He was working on high powered electrical lines when he accidentally touched a live wire and lost both his arms. He volunteered to be a test subject at a company called DEKA, which is developing robotic arms. I shot this in 2008 and Chuck is wearing a prototype of DEKA’s LUKE [Life Under Kinetic Evolution] arm which is a neuroprosthetic – it uses electromyogram [EMG] electrodes to pick up signals from the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves –all this guy has to do is think and his fingers move.

Since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which saw widespread use of IEDs, the US Defense Department has been investing heavily in prosthetics to deal with the increase in amputees. DEKA continue to develop the latest version of the LUKE arm, which now has vibrating sensors that feed back to the user, allowing them to peel a banana without squishing it.

I’ve seen people be horrified by prosthetic limbs. I have a real issue with the fear of the unknown, whether its robots, prosthetics or people with deformities, so I shot Chuck with the daughter of one of the DEKA engineers. I wanted to make a picture that echoed the scene by the pond in [the 1931 movie] Frankenstein, with calmness and sweetness instead of fear.”


“Valkyrie was Nasa’s entry into the 2013 Darpa [the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Robotics Challenge, a competition to create a humanoid robot that could be the first responder to something like the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The challenge was to create a robot that could enter the most inhospitable environments and either rescue people or do the mechanical repairs necessary within a toxic or dangerous situation.

Valkyrie didn’t win, but Nasa always had other plans for her: she is going to Mars. The plan is that the first missions to Mars [projected to be in the mid-2030s] will be humanoid only; no humans allowed. Instead, a team of Valkyries will go to the red planet and build the space station before the humans arrive.

After the Darpa challenge, Nasa gave four Valkyries to different universities to test the robots to their limits. They want the Valkyries to break down in a number of different ways now, so they can correct things before they get into a mission-critical situation in outer space.

None of the robots I have shot has been the finished article – a lot of them don’t even work. But as a doctor I’m used to seeing humans that don’t work but who are then fixed, and I can see the potential for how robots can change everything.

They have already impacted everyday life. I am working with David Hanson on a robot called Sophia who is a further development of Bina48 – she’s on the pathway to developing consciousness. David and I are working towards dismantling the fear of robots. It’s not that robots are not going to take over our jobs – they are. We need to start engaging in that conversation and making sure that it is a positive development for mankind rather than a harmful one. The world is facing some very real threats and it’s not fanciful to me that through robotics we can engineer solutions. There’s no point being afraid of androids. You might as well be scared of your toaster or refrigerator. Instead we should harness their potential – the hope in the machine.”

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