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December 7th, 2019

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Wanted: 'Friendly' human face for global army of humanoid robots. Apply within

 Peter Holley

By Peter Holley The Washington Post

Published Nov. 7, 2019

Wanted: 'Friendly' human face for global army of humanoid robots. Apply within
Are you exceptionally fond of your face?

More specifically: Are you so fond of your face that you'd like to see it plastered on a global fleet of humanoid robots for years to come?

If you answered "yes" to both questions - which would hardly be surprising in the "selfie" era - a British engineering and manufacturing firm wants to hear from you. That firm, Geomiq, claims its been hired by a mysterious robotics company to put out a call for photo submissions. The reason: said company has developed a humanoid robot that is nearing completion, but still in need of the right visage.

The line between an epic ego boost and a nightmare from a "Black Mirror" episode, it seems, has never been thinner.

In a statement posted online, Geomiq says the robotics company - which remains unnamed due to an apparent non-disclosure agreement - isn't looking for just any old face, but a "kind and friendly" one that will may be reproduced "on potentially thousands of versions of the robots worldwide," according to the statement.

The blog post doesn't specify whether designers are seeking a particular age or gender for their robotic face.

Geomiq notes that theirs is a "unique request." As if trying to outdo that understatement, the company points out that licensing one's face to a humanoid robotic project of unknown origin is, after all, "potentially an extremely big decision."

Potentially, indeed.

But, they add, a nearly $130,000 enticement awaits the bold individual who agrees to let the robotics company license their visage, likely altering the course of their life forever.

Because the internet is an unregulated house of mirrors patrolled by piratical tricksters who traffic in flimflam, it's unclear whether Geomiq's request is a daring social experiment, a prank, or a legitimate plea for assistance. The firm's statement includes a semi-detailed explanation for their client's secrecy.

"The company is privately-funded and says the robots' purpose will be to act as a 'virtual friend' for elderly people, and is set to go into production next year," the statement says. "The designer has said that the project has been in development for five years, and has since taken on investment from a number of independent VCs as well as a top fund based in Shanghai."

"The company says the need for anonymity is due to the 'secretive' nature of the project, however it believes the robot will soon be 'readily available' to the public and hopes the campaign will create extra buzz ahead of its eventual release," the statement adds.

The company claims that candidates whose faces advance to the next phase of the selection process can expect full transparency about the nature of the robotics project.

Not sure if your face is worthy of gracing a robot army? Don't fret. There's already a seemingly endless variety of robot faces on the market today, their design often reflective of the machine's purpose and expected location. Some robots, like the $1 million robotic Buddhist priest, Mindar, have human-like faces, though they're not always equipped to carry out realistic human expressions.

In Thailand, one hospital has introduced robotic nurses whose faces consist largely of two blazing red eyes - each one massive and ghoulish - which glare from behind a darkened pane of transparent plastic like a demonic predator lurking in the dark. The robotic assistant known as Pepper, meanwhile, has a non-threatening face with cartoonishly large eyes that are designed to put people at ease.

In recent years, a growing number of robots have been developed with faces rendered on a screen, offering designers more flexibility in how they define a robot's personality. Last year, roboticists from the University of Washington in Seattle identified 157 different robots with rendered faces. Researchers categorized the faces according to dozens of attributes and then surveyed people about their reaction to different robotic facial styles.

In their paper, "Characterizing the Design Space of Rendered Robot Faces," researchers report that the plurality of robot faces are black (34.4%) and most (65.6%) include a mouth, but less than half have eyebrows and even fewer have a nose. Less than one in 10 robots have hair and even fewer have ears. Most robot eyes are white and circular and generally feature pupils.

Though seemingly innocuous, a robot's facial features can have an enormous impact on how they're received by humans, who are hardwired to recognize and closely read faces.

"Faces are critical in establishing the agency of social robots; however, building expressive mechanical faces is costly and difficult," the paper states.

"We find that participants preferred less realistic and less detailed robots in the home, but highly detailed yet not exceedingly realistic robots for service jobs," the paper adds. "The lack of key features like pupils and mouths resulted in low likability ratings and engendered distrust, leading participants to relegate them to security jobs."

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