AI Robotic Versions Of Celebrities Are Now A Thing

The robotic figure of Chinese actor Jing Boran and his CGI companion Wuba from Monster Hunt. Engineered Arts via YouTube

Aliyah Kovner 14 May 2018, 10:50

What’s better than standing next to a rigid statue formed to the likeness of your favorite celebrity? How about meeting a life-like robotic version of them that can talk back to you?

That concept is the new high-tech and high-cost business venture of legendary wax museum franchise Madame Tussauds. This week the Shanghai location unveiled the company's first interactive robotic figure, a beautifully detailed dupe of Chinese actor Jing Boran in costume from the film Monster Hunt. Perched on his shoulder is a responsive model of the character’s CGI companion, a creature named Wuba.

To create their first moving figure, Madame Tussauds stepped away from the wax sculpting method that had been in use since Marie Tussaud herself began creating and displaying famous likenesses at the end of the 18th century, and turned to the world-renowned robotics company Engineered Arts, whose Cornwall-based engineers and programmers produce bespoke commissions and a line of remote-operated robots that also come with customized pre-loaded speech and animation content.

First, Tussauds artists created a traditional clay bust of Boran, then Engineered Arts staff scanned the sculpture and used computer software to design a version of the head and neck that could be 3D printed in flexible silicone.

The external pieces were then affixed to a sophisticated motor and magnet operated robotic “skull” and mounted on a body composed of a metal skeleton covered with a lightweight, anatomically shaped shell.

“This is not just animatronic, this is robotics, so we’re bringing in senses, we’re bringing in perception, face recognition, person detection, age and gender recognition,” Engineered Arts director Will Jackson told the Telegraph.

Designed to respond to the presence of people nearby and make eye contact with visitors, the Boran figure is considered to have several artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. Though more interactive thanks to their language capabilities, AI programs such as Siri and Alexa also fall into the category of limited AI because they cannot conduct a meaningful conversation. 

As of yet, the only robot that is considered advanced AI while also mimicking a human appearance and expressions is Sophia, created by Hanson Robotics. Rather than duplicating an existing celebrity person, Sophia rose to fame on her own accord (well, technically, on her programmers’) for freaking a lot of people out at public displays with her seemingly sentient features.

Late last year, Saudia Arabia even made history by granting her citizenship.

And while all current humanoid robots still fall squarely in the uncanny valley, believable versions are sure to be coming soon. Plus, just a few weeks ago, Madame Tussauds revealed a Tom Hardy figure that emanates heat at human body temperature and even has a heartbeat you can feel on contact.

Combine all this technology and someday soon we could have a coalition of passable silicone Kardashians, DiCaprios, and Swifts demanding constitutional rights. Seems like a fitting way to start the robot apocalypse.

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