He founded one of the early digital startups in the ...
Rimini Protokoll is Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel. Together, they have been dramatising social progress and questioning it since 2000: What will life look like in 2048 after digital erosion? Are humanoid robots going to soon replace us? Rimini Protokoll addresses all this in their latest work, “Uncanny Valley”, which offers a disturbing look at our reality. The piece features a humanoid robot in the person of writer Thomas Melle, who sits on stage speaking to the audience in his own voice. An eerie encounter? Perhaps. But in the future, most likely a reality. We spoke about this and more with Stefan Kaegi (the real one).
CCB Magazine: Hi Stefan, you’ve been addressing complex social issues on stage for years, often relying on amateur actors and subject matter experts. This time a humanoid robot is performing, a symbol of digital progress. How is it working with a robot? Are you “friends”?
Stefan: Of course. And at first it wasn’t that easy to create it at all. We really wanted to emulate Thomas Melle’s physiognomy; every facial expression, every gesture was to be modelled exactly according to his own. To do so, we had to create a silicone impression of Melle’s head, the real one, which gave it its shape. This was followed by meticulous programming work in order to make his facial expressions – lips, eyes, and eyelashes – appear as authentic as possible. After each performance, the robot had to be packaged away carefully again. I think I’ve never worried about a performer as much as Melle 2, as we refer to him.
I think I’ve never felt more unnerved by a performer than I did by Melle 2. And at first it wasn’t that easy to create it at all. We really wanted to emulate Thomas Melle’s physiognomy; every facial expression, every gesture was to be modelled exactly according to his own
CCB Magazine:Thomas Melle wrote the piece himself, he suffers from a manicdepressive illness, which he addressed in his 2016 book, “Die Welt im Rücken”. And he said that thanks to the robot, he could regain a sense of control – you can then simply send the robot to the next meeting or to the stage without being physically present yourself. Will we have to get used to humanoid robots in our everyday life in the future?
Stefan:I believe so. People are already experimenting with using these robots in professions such as nursing, and initial experiments with them, for example in Japan, have shown that it works. Japan in particular is considered a showpiece of New Robotics in the working world. This is due to the fact that fears of surveillance and uncontrollability are much lesser prevalent there than here. Many Japanese even expect these technologies to enrich their lives in the future. Not least of all, this has to do with positive portrayals in manga and popular culture, which means that the Japanese have less fear of contact with humanoid machines. The demographic change, which is even more serious than in Germany, makes the use of robots almost necessary. According to forecasts, of Japan’s 127 million people, 28.1 per cent are older than 65 years of age – and this number will decline to 88 million by 2065. Rural regions are threatened with abandonment, loneliness and a shortage of labour. Robots are seen as an aid in Japan, even in areas such as elderly care, where work is ‘human’. In Germany, people are far more cautious. But also here research results show that we accept robots in our everyday life, if they have social abilities, if we consider them to be human beings. This is where our piece “Uncanny Valley” comes in. Cause if we’re in the realm of the Uncanny Valley, robots scare us.
CCB Magazine:Can you explain the term “Uncanny Valley”?
Stefan:The term “Uncanny Valley” originally comes from the Japanese robotics researcher Masahiro Mori from the 1970s. At that time, Mori realised that humanoid robots were particularly scary when they looked almost, but not entirely, like us.For example, if they only reproduce us, say, to 70 per cent, then we don’t perceive them as humanlike and may or may not find them sympathetic. But if they are not quite similar to us in certain respects, maybe only just a bit less than 100 per cent, then we perceive them as zombies – then this is what is referred to as Uncanny Valley.
Humanoid robots could become commonplace in the future. In countries like Japan, they already are. And here, too, we won’t just find them in retirement homes. Humanlike dolls are also increasingly becoming part of our sex lives
CCB Magazine:The attempts to replace humans with mechanical things are not new. Even in preChristian times, the Greeks invented simple automata that could perform activities without direct human intervention. This is how the first waterpowered clock was made in 270 BC. Robots have been around in industrial settings since the 1960s, although in 1927 the movie “Metropolis”, the first human machine hit the big screen. Is your piece a critique of the robotisation of society or should we look forward to it?
Stefan:On the one hand, it is a criticism of the circum stances. Yes. Because we have become technical beings for a while now and are literally helpless when our smartphone fails. That’s why our theatre always addresses interface problems – we try to mirror society, and the audience experiences the reality it needs. On the other hand, humanoids will become part of daily routine in the future. And not only in retirement homes. Humanlike dolls are also increasingly becoming part of our sex lives. There are already the first robot brothels.
CCB Magazine:The aim of your pieces is to reach the audience emotionally and confront it with reality. How did the audience react to Melle 2? Was it disturbed?
Stefan:Some people actually thought it was a human being playing a robot and not the other way round. They thought, “damn, he’s good.” Our intention was not to pretend that it was not a robot on stage; that would have been silly. The back of the head is therefore open. Nevertheless, for some, the presentation seemed deceptively genuine. His authenticity evokes empathy among the audience: a certain glow in the eyes, a certain angle around the lips. It brings him closer to the audience and they cannot resist the sympathy for him, even though they know that it’s a robot.
Some people actually believed that Melle 2 is a human who plays a robot and not the other way around. They seemed to be thinking to themselves, “damn, he’s good!”
CCB Magazine:Rimini Protokoll has long been concerned with technical and digital progress and its implications for us. In your piece “Staat” (“State”), you posed the question as to how digital development will change our lives by 2048. Now it’s the humanoid robot Melle 2. We are currently experiencing a strong digital penetration in our lives and everyday work. What does that mean for the performing arts?
Stefan:Theatre basically has the chance, as live art, to very closely examine the present, to stage coexistence in the present time. And since a large part of our efforts, creativity and debates in the postindustrial age have to do with the question of how we want to live together, theatre is the art of the age – an art that doesn’t isolate us from each other, but draws us out from behind our screens. It’s up to us not to let this being together degenerate into an end in itself, but to use this social space to critically question the complex issues of our time. Of course, this also includes socioeconomic interrelationships of power, which seem to leave less and less leeway for policymakers (or politics in general). Theatre will continue to outsmart reality in the future.
CCB Magazine:Last question: Can machines become friends and if so, how many can do so?
Stefan:Maybe they can, but in a way that would be very sad, too. For my part, at least, I’m very happy with my human friends. And they won’t be replaced by any machines in the future.
Also a good read