University of CanberraTALK TO THE (ARTICULATED) HEAD 2.0


It’s impossible to remain indifferent to Articulated Head (AH) 2.0, the art installation which joins the cast of Questacon’s Born or Built: Our Robotic Future today – even if you resist the temptation to talk to the 3D rendering of renowned performance artist Stelarc’s head, it may well turn to watch you, gyrating gently on its robotic axis.

Stelarc’s “head” is captured within a 17-inch LCD mounted on an end effector, itself on the end of an industrial robot arm. A battalion of sensors – auditory localisation, stereo vision and monocular vision – equip AH 2.0 with a situational “awareness”, making it able to detect movement and sound in relation to its own location, and therefore interact with the people around it.

It’s the latest incarnation of a project from long-time collaborators Stelarc, University of Canberra Associate Professor in Robotics and Art Dr Damith Herath and cognitive scientist Christian Kroos of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Germany.

The intention has been to model the behaviour of an “active listener” robotic agent, as it interacts with human agents – facial expressions change, the head’s lips are synced to its speech, and the movement of the robotic arm complements the interaction.

“In creating the installation, we needed to consider things like how convincing the real-time lip-syncing is, how the sensors allow the head to track someone’s movement and have a conversation – these are technical considerations, but they are also aesthetic ones,” Stelarc said.

This is the artist’s first interactive installation which utilises language.

Ask AH 2.0 a question, and it will respond as the artist would – “With a generally plausible answer,” Stelarc said.

“You might get a surprise some of the time though – if you ask it what psychoanalysis is, it could answer you with a story about Freud’s relationships. These are the interactions which are particularly interesting to me, when the phrasing of a question causes the program to select from fragments of information and put together an unexpected answer.”

Exploring issues of agency and embodiment, AH 2.0 has grown from its original incarnation as a five-metre head projected onto a wall.

“Then, its sense of presence came from its sheer size. But in its current form, it is an object in physical space and can establish a sense of connection and intimacy in its interactions,” Stelarc said.

The system is driven by an attention model built by Christian, an algorithmic implementation that emulates simple brain function and provides randomised answers to questions. AH 2.0 has a vocabulary of facial responses, which can be programmed as responses to certain types of questions.

Artistic vision and technology aside, one more component is needed to close the circuit – the human agent.

“The system is only fully realised when someone steps up to engage with it,” Stelarc said.

“This is a project that demands a basic aliveness, the perception of a rudimentary intelligence for people to engage with.

“Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgentstein said ‘In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use’. It’s the context and the usage which imbues meaning, rather than the intrinsic value of language.

“In the same way, agency is the result of the interaction, and intelligence is the enactment of response – the head is only as intelligent as the person interrogating it, and if the head responds, then could we not assume rudimentary thinking?” said Stelarc.

It seems an easy cognitive leap for many of the people who have interacted with previous installations of AH 2.0 – many of whom have projected a humanity and agency onto it, even formed a connection.

“When the installation was at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and it came time to shut down the system, a security person came by and said that he would be sad to see ‘him’ go – ‘He’s a friend of mine by now!’,” said Damith.

Stelarc adds an anecdote of his own: “At another exhibition, the gallery director noticed that a little boy kept coming back on an almost daily basis to have a conversation with the head. But one day it was closed, and the little boy burst out crying – because he couldn’t get in to talk to his friend.”

These are the kind of interactions that really interest Damith and his research collaborators, such as Associate Professor Elizabeth Jochum, from the Research Laboratory for Art and Technology at Aalborg University in Denmark.

“What’s meaningful to me is not to make a distinction between real and simulated intelligence, but the interactions that a sense of agency – or the belief in one – can elicit,” Damith added.

“AH 2.0 is as much a scientific and social research platform as it is an artistic installation – so we have set up a live lab next to the installation. This can be used to generate data, but not to control what AH 2.0 says.

“We want to explore the mechanical parameters that can elicit a particular kind of interaction, to see what gets a particular kind of reaction from different people, such as whether the voice is gendered, whether the head is a realistic rendition of Stelarc, or a cartoon – these are all possible variations in the installation.

It’s an open-ended space to test different ideas out.

While Christian will investigate machine learning for the auditory sensor by exploring non-verbal cues, Damith and Elizabeth will look at how people react to the robot’s parameters, the configuration of its joints, speeds, poses and types of movement.

At the heart of all this research lies an acknowledgement of the importance of human-centric robotic design – it will therefore contribute to the body of knowledge shaping such design globally.

“Increasingly, we are all interacting with virtual agents, whether it’s via phone or computer and that is only going to increase,” Stelarc said.

“This kind of research indicates whether people are more comfortable with a more humanoid face, humanoid gestures, or something more animal- or insect-like, or closer to a machine.”

Ultimately though, Articulated Head 2.0 highlights how fragile the demarcation between art and science can be … perhaps that line is just projected, as much a construct as perceived agency.

And as a reflection of Stelarc’s humour and whimsy, a touchpoint for questions of agency and life, and a springboard for scientific investigation, it’s an enduring and endearing piece of art, says Damith.

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