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A visit to the human factory

How to build the world’s most realistic robot

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Photo Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge

Will Jackson, CEO of robotics company Engineered Arts, says he isn’t sure what’s worse: the angry emails that accuse him of building machines that will one day overthrow humanity or the speculative ones enquiring if the sender can fuck the robots.

“Everybody wants to see a humanoid robot,” Jackson says. “They love to imagine all these things that are going to happen. Part of what we do is fulfilling that desire.” (Though not, he is careful to stress, the sex-robot stuff.)

Footage of Engineered Arts’ most recent creation, a gray-skinned bot named Ameca, went viral last December with clips showing an android with an exposed metal torso and eerily realistic facial expressions interacting with researchers. (“Android” being the correct term for a human-shaped robot, from the ancient Greek andro for “man” and eides for “form.”)

In one video, Ameca frowns as an off-screen employee reaches out to touch its nose before smoothly reaching up to stop his arm in a whir of electric motors. It’s an uncanny moment that sets off alarm bells for the viewer: the shock is that a robot would want to establish this boundary between it and us — a desire that is, ironically, very human.

“Got just a tad scared when it raised its hand to his arm. Thought it was just gonna snap it.” Says another, “I know this is scary, but I love this and I want more.”

It’s these emotions — curiosity, fear, excitement — that are Engineered Arts’ stock-in-trade. The company makes its money selling its robots for entertainment and education. They’re used by academics for research; by marketing teams for publicity stunts; and placed in museums, airports, and malls to welcome visitors. “Anywhere you’ve got a big crowd of people to interact with,” says Jackson.

“I know this is scary, but I love this and I want more.”

The machines can run on autopilot, reacting to passersby with preset banter. Or they can be controlled remotely, with unseen handlers responding to queries from the crowd as in this video filmed at CES. In the near future, though, Engineered Arts wants to equip its robots with more sophisticated chatbot software that would let them respond fluidly to queries without any human guidance.

More than entertainers, though, these robots are heralds of the future. As technology improves and androids become more realistic, the question of how we relate to such machines is going to become more pressing. Are fucking and fighting the only two responses we can imagine?

A prototype robot used to test facial expressions.
A prototype robot used to test facial expressions.

Humanity’s interest in androids seems like a modern obsession, but this is far from the truth. We’ve been dreaming of artificial humans for thousands of years — from the singing, gold-forged Celedones of ancient Greek myth to the golem of Jewish folklore, molded from clay and animated by sacred words. The term “robot,” by comparison, is a more recent coinage, first appearing in 1920 in the play RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Here, machines are stand-ins for a newly brutalized working class (the term robot comes from the Slavonic robota, meaning “forced labor”) forced into mechanical postures and destined to revolt.

A diagram of Jacques de Vaucanson’s digesting duck (that mistakenly assumed the food was being processed).
A diagram of Jacques de Vaucanson’s digesting duck (that mistakenly assumed the food was being processed).
Image: Public Domain

Before they were surrogates for class fear, though, automata in Europe were spectacles. Automata invented in the medieval era are still familiar today, like the jacquemarts, or “jacks of the clock” — human figures that strike bells in Europe’s grand astronomical clocks. Others were elaborate one-offs, like the mechanical lion gifted to Francis I of France in 1515. Designed by Leonardo da Vinci, the lion was reportedly capable of walking up to the king unaided before opening its chest to reveal a bouquet of flowers inside. 

As clockwork improved, designs became more complex. The 18th-century engineer Jacques de Vaucanson put on theatrical shows featuring automata that could play the flute and tambourine. His most famous machine, though, imitated basic biology: it was a duck that appeared to eat, drink, and defecate — an achievement that led the philosopher Voltaire to praise Vaucanson as the “new Prometheus.”

As with the robots built by Engineered Arts, these automata inspired a range of reactions. Some people celebrated their artificiality, seeing the machines as proof of humanity’s technological achievements while others ascribed spiritual properties to these machines, claiming they blurred the boundaries between artificial and biological life. Such theorizing was not trivial, either, inspiring thinkers like René Descartes to suggest that humans and animals were only another sort of advanced machine (though the latter category lacked soul or consciousness). 

“There’s this sense that what is around us could be intelligence, and different cultures react to that in different ways.” 

A desire to project agency and intelligence onto inanimate matter, though, is deeply human, says Beth Singler, a digital anthropologist at the University of Cambridge. “You don’t have to go as far as Ameca has with facial features before people start bringing animated entities into what I call their cosmology of potential beings,” she tells The Verge. “There’s this sense that what is around us could be intelligence, and different cultures react to that in different ways.” 

Traditions like Shinto and Buddhism are more open about this impulse to ascribe soul to objects, says Singler, but the same instincts run deep in the West. “We like to think we’re immune to this because we had the Enlightenment and became very serious and rational,” she says. “But I don’t see that. When I see people’s interactions with animated technological entities — and that can be everything from a robot to a Roomba — I see that same animistic tendency.” In other words: we still want to believe. 

Engineered Arts’ creations blend robotics and special effects.
Engineered Arts’ creations blend robotics and special effects.

Engineered Arts knows how to play upon such instincts. As Jackson explains, “It’s amazing the simple things you can do to make a machine look sentient.” In the company’s early days, for example, they hit upon a useful trick with speech recognition. Instead of programming a chatbot that analyzed what people were saying, his engineers coded a program that repeated the last thing the robot heard and swapped the words “you” and “I” in any sentence. “So you say to the robot ‘I love you,’ and it says back, ‘you love me,’” he says. “And you think ‘oh my god, it understands me,’ but no, all I did was swap two words around.” 

The company explores these questions from its headquarters in Falmouth in the UK. It’s an unassuming location for such sci-fi work: a fishing town with a population of a little over 20,000 on the southwestern tip of the country in the county of Cornwall. It’s a region with a distinct sense of local identity, where inhabitants are proud to have more in common with Celtic neighbors in Ireland and France than with the rest of England. Jackson himself is a local, Falmouth born and raised, and says he couldn’t have imagined settling elsewhere.

The sense of remoteness fits the work. The company’s headquarters, in a large industrial building on the edge of town, has the quiet and airy feel of an artisan’s workshop. On the day that I pay a visit, a storm is blowing into town, sending whistles through the various departments. There’s coding with its multi-monitor standing desks and mugs extolling the virtues of rock climbing; costuming with its rails of outfits and wigs; and engineering — the largest area — populated by huge machine tools that are noisily slicing up blocks of aluminum. 

The decorative motif that unifies the spaces, though, is the body parts. Wherever you go in the building, there are mechanical limbs, silicone faces, and disembodied heads scattered on desks and shelves. Exploring the place feels like going behind the scenes at Westworld: it’s eerie to see the human form broken down into its constituent components, but you soon become accustomed to the sight. Before you know it, you’re pulling at mechanical hands and rubber faces with the curious innocence of a child. 

Engineered Arts CEO Will Jackson shows off the detail in a rubber face.
Engineered Arts CEO Will Jackson shows off the detail in a rubber face.

For some, this is one of the dangers of creating realistic robots. As you get used to treating human-like automata as automata, you may slowly find yourself treating humans the same. It’s similar to the dilemma parents have with young children and Alexa. Should they be polite to the AI assistant because it encourages them to be polite to humans? Or is that the wrong way to treat a piece of software coded and controlled by a huge multinational corporation? 

As I ponder this, Jackson and I walk past a desk laden with mechanical widgets undergoing stress tests. Pistons have been nailed to a wooden plank while, on a stand, tiny pulleys lift and lower a cup full of screws. And, true to Singler’s suggestion that humans will ascribe a bit of soul to just about anything that moves, I feel passing sympathy even for these tortured components.

“We’re testing those actuators for fingers,” Jackson says. “It’s all about longevity: how many times can you run that back and forth.” The goal is a million cycles, though the motors — found on a Chinese wholesale site — have only gone through a few hundred thousand so far. They were likely designed to open and close CD drives, he says, but if they prove reliable, they’ll have a new use opening and closing artificial hands.

Engineered Arts doesn’t build its robots entirely from scratch, but the company’s involvement in every part of their construction — from molding rubber faces to programming robot brains — makes its wares almost unique in the market. Probably only Disney’s Imagineering team, which builds animatronics for its theme parks, combines so much disparate expertise under a single roof, says Jackson. And Disney isn’t selling what it makes.

Engineered Arts’ first robot — RoboThespian — was much less realistic than its current models.
Engineered Arts’ first robot — RoboThespian — was much less realistic than its current models.

Since its founding in 2005, Engineered Arts has made a half dozen or so robots. But its latest model, Ameca, is undoubtedly the most sophisticated yet. After our initial tour, Jackson takes us to see one of three operational units. As he boots up the machine’s operating system on a laptop, the automaton comes to life. It scrunches its cheeks, raises its eyebrows, and then grimaces and blinks. It’s like watching a newborn baby cycle through facial expressions. There’s a sense that the hardware hasn’t yet been fully connected to the software.

“The human face is this massive bandwidth communication tool.”

It’s these facial expressions that encapsulate Engineered Arts’ ambitions. “The human face is this massive bandwidth communication tool,” says Jackson. “You have a physical interface that people recognize.” As a species, we’re hard-wired to identify faces, but Ameca is so lifelike that it takes barely any effort to project intelligence where there is none. As Jackson prompts the robot to trot out some pre-programmed phrases, I reach up to see what the face feels like — and hesitate. Jackson reassures me that it’s not dangerous, but my worry was that it was disrespectful. 

Engineered Arts deploys all sorts of methods to compound the impression of sentience. Jackson is particularly proud of the clavicle, which can move forward and back as well as pitch, roll, and yaw. All this helps convey subtle emotions like anticipation and apprehension. Microphones in the robot’s ears allow it to triangulate sound and turn to nearby noise while cameras in its eyeballs run a simple machine vision program to track hands and faces. The result is that if you move into Ameca’s presence or speak to it, it responds like a human would. It turns to look at you, and, naturally, you look back. It’s the start of a relationship. 

This is why the company builds androids specifically, says Jackson: because we naturally respond to them like humans. The form just doesn’t make sense for any other task. “The only good reason to build a humanoid is to interact and be friendly with people,” he says. Robots should be built to carry out specific tasks as efficiently as possible, which is why “the best robot dishwasher is a square box — it’s not a humanoid wandering around your house, messing with your plates.”

There are just too many engineering challenges in replicating the efficiency and dexterity of the human body. Electric motors are far more bulky and power-hungry than organic muscle, while digital control systems still aren’t able to emulate our mobility, dexterity, and perception. In the field of robotics, this is known as Moravec’s paradox: the fact that it’s much easier to build an AI that can beat a chess grandmaster than a robot with the physical skills of a toddler. 

One of Engineered Arts’ employees puts the finishing touch on an eyeball.
One of Engineered Arts’ employees puts the finishing touch on an eyeball.

Despite this, advances in some areas of AI, like machine vision and natural language understanding, have rekindled old ambitions to construct the perfect human robot. When I ask Jackson what he thinks of Elon Musk’s plan to create an android worker for his factories, he’s incredulous. “When [Musk] jumped on the bandwagon with the Tesla Bot, we were absolutely rolling around in laughter,” he says. He suggests the tech CEO will certainly come up with something (“he’s got a budget and he can spot talent”). But there’s no way he’ll make a machine that can replace humans — something Musk has promised with absolute certainty.

For now, humans are much better at being humans

If you want to see why Musk’s plans will fail, says Jackson, just look at Boston Dynamics. That’s a company that has been developing robots for decades, but its most advanced android — Atlas — is still restricted to demos and research. For now, humans are just so much better at being humans. “They self-repair, they self-replicate, and they run off a packet of cornflakes,” he says, speculating that Musk’s desire to create a perfectly pliant worker perhaps says more about his well-documented problems with human labor than his grasp of the possibilities of robotic engineering. 

What Musk can do, though, is trigger people’s imaginations — just like Engineered Arts. That’s part of the reason why, when he brought out a dancing man in a spandex suit in lieu of his Tesla Bot last year, so many fans were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt: people want to believe in robots. 

Engineered Arts is much more upfront about this sort of “trickery” (a term Jackson finds a little ungenerous). Unlike one of the company’s rivals, Hanson Robotics, the makers of the Sophia robot, the company doesn’t pretend its machines are conscious. When Sophia goes on late night talk shows and declares that it’s a friend to humanity or that it wants a child, experts spit feathers. “It’s obviously bullshit,” AI ethics researcher Joanna Bryson told me a few years ago after Sophia had been made a “citizen” of Saudi Arabia as a PR stunt. In interviews with Engineered Arts’ employees, though, they stress the reality of these machines: they’re advanced animatronics — not the first draft of the robot apocalypse. 

You could argue that the company still contributes to these misconceptions by sharing clips of Ameca without full context, but Jackson’s response is that some people will always willfully misunderstand what they see. “If an actor plays a baddie in the film, people hiss at him when they see him in the street,” he says. “It’s an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

Ameca is Engineered Arts’ most recent — and most realistic — creation.
Ameca is Engineered Arts’ most recent — and most realistic — creation.

After spending time with Ameca, my own ability to distinguish fantasy and reality is, I think, intact. But there are certainly moments when the illusion is complete and convincing. Often, it’s just a single gesture — a sweep of the hands or a squint of the eye — but, just for a second, you can believe that this assemblage of motors and circuits standing in front of you is something more than the sum of its parts. 

Looking over the history of automata, there’s one particular type of robot that Ameca reminds me of: the robotic saint. There are numerous examples of such religious automata from the late medieval era onwards, including life-size sculptures of Christ and the Virgin Mary that were equipped with articulated limbs and animated by puppetry or clockwork. These artifacts were often incorporated into religious ceremonies, engaging audiences with their miraculous attributes, and, though it may be odd to think of robots as miraculous agents, they are certainly superhuman: they do not die and cannot age. And in our current era of machine learning hype and mysticism — when tech bros start religions dedicated to AI gods and researchers speculate on Twitter as to whether neural nets are conscious — I think this tendency to turn the technological into something spiritual is stronger than ever.

Robots and AI occupy a semi-mystical space in popular culture

Singler specializes in cultural reactions to AI and says this is a consistent theme in her studies. She notes how frequently AI stock images recall religious imagery like The Creation of Adam or how people talk about being “blessed by the algorithm” on social media, creating folk traditions on how to extract favorable results from these mysterious entities. “When it comes to AI it’s easy to see it as super-intelligence and almost fitting into that God-space very quickly,” she says. 

In this light, Engineered Arts’ robots are not only devices for entertainment but also a tangible way to interact with this powerful new force in the world — a way for audiences to engage with anxieties about the future and technology. Jackson says that after people have gotten over the initial surprise of seeing a robot like Ameca, their next reaction is to critique. “When people see our robots [they] pick up on all the things that are wrong. ‘Oh that blink was wrong,’ they say. Or, ‘A real person would never have done that,’” he says. “They’re differentiating themselves from the machine. I think it’s reassuring: ‘I don’t need to worry, that machine’s not as good as me.’”

The next step for Ameca is a version that walks, says Jackson, and he shows me a prototype pair of metal legs, bending and flexing the knees. He says his work ultimately reminds him of the magnificence of nature. The more he tries to re-create the human body, the greater his sense of “awe and wonder” — and his realization of how far human ingenuity has to go to compete. “You look at biological systems and then you try and emulate it, and you end up thinking — and I’m not religious — but you end up thinking, ‘How the hell did this happen?’”

Photography by James Vincent / The Verge