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Analogy Puppets and Robots – Exchange between VU and UQC

Suze van Miltenburg

In December we (prof. K. Hindriks VU en Suze van Miltenburg UQC) set up a new exchange linked to the Social Intelligence Robot Project at the VU. The initial idea was to work with students on the topic ‘coming alive’ and work from the analogy between puppets and robots. Due to a shortage of participating students the set up of the project changed. The consequence is that the exchange exists of a working session and this report. 

Coming Alive – Study and Conversation
We started the session with a sharing and research to the topic coming alive. Can we extend our knowledge and perspective on this ‘term’? The topic discussed was: “What makes something alive?” these are some of the comments made by the participants:

  • Some of the humanoid robots that we can find these days, like the robot Sophia, have some characteristics that make them feel ‘creepy’. Some of these characteristics are a surprisingly human-like appearance, not natural movements, or eyes that can blink but don’t actually move. These make them feel non-natural and therefore not alive. So, having a face and eyes that blink can make something come alive, because we are good at recognizing faces, but you should not make it too lifelike because then it becomes creepy. 
  • One possible answer to the proposed question could be that something is alive if it interacts with something else in a natural way, being the movements is an essential matter in this interaction.

    What does it mean to come alive? Something comes alive when it interacts with something else

  • Another interesting point made during the discussion was the possibility of dressing up robots to change the perception they generate. Dressing up a robot to represent a culture, for example. Appearance, perception, and presence in combination with movement are key factors in making something feel alive.

    What does it mean to come alive? Appearance and perception of movement

  • Some other representatives of classic human behaviors mentioned were making eye contact, not being always available, not invading others personal space, or not stare at someone continuously. Adding external objects could also be considered to improve interaction.
  • One critical aspect of humans are imperfections. Making mistakes makes us humans, and is therefore a fundamental point to answer what makes us alive.

    What does it mean to come alive? Imperfection, making mistakes

  • Elements that may help to make something appear alive is to make it look as if it has curiosity, as if it is taking the initiative. For example, by making random movements.
  • One of the things mentioned that could help achieving the aim of making something feel alive is removing the user’s bias of knowing that the robot doesn’t live. One example could be covering the robot, so at first, the human can’t tell if it’s dealing with a robot or a living being.

    What does it mean to come alive? Think about ways to make sure the audience is still open to the possibility of something being alive

  • Another point mentioned during the session was how humans, unlike robots, have the ability to respond to stimuli. Following this point, we can also find something in common in all living things, which is a purpose. Humans, animals, and even plants have a purpose or goal for themselves, something we cannot find in robots.

    What does it mean to come alive? Responding to stimuli from the environment purposefully (having a purpose). Important from a perception point of view: we need to be able to make sense of it

  • Connection to the physical space also may be an important aspect for something to appear alive. How can you provide something with a soul inspire, bring something to live? Japanese masters do believe that a puppet has a soul. They treat it with a lot of respect, shown in their behavior towards it. What does it mean to inspire? Bringing something to someone. Sharing energy, transitioning energy to the puppet is important, which raises the question of how to give something “energy”. What does it mean to bring something alive? This raises the question what meaning you give to an object.

Manipulating the puppet
After the conversation, we worked with a puppet and focussed on two aspects of the proces of coming to live: 1- the manipulation and tools 2- observation and criteria. Without any explanation or experience the students has been asked to do an attempt bringing a puppet, of the UQC, to live. Together we discovered and observed some tools, listed below, that gives us an impression of technique. The initial idea was to list them and explore how they can be of input in working with a pepper robot or how they relate to AI.

  • Movement (of object)
  • Mimic (of object) 
  • Intention (of movement) 
  • Imagination (of performer) 
  • Projection (of performer)
  • Concentration (audience and manipulator) 
  • Coordination (between body parts) 
  • Eyes and focus (object) 
  • Autonomie (of the object) 
  • Gravity 
  • Appearance
  • Speed
  • Rhythm
  • Context
  • Dynamic
  • Place
  • Time 
  • Presence of the manipulator

The spectators role gave an interesting input in this practice. What if we do not only focus on the movements and manipulation of the object but try to step into the role of a spectator/user? Can we create criteria or practice a conversation about ‘when and how’ something works and incorporate the experience of the spectator/user in creating material instead of focussing on the robot succeeding the programmed movements? Some criteria we named where: It played with my imagination. It made me think of.., it looked like it was moving on it’s own, it made me laugh, it surprised me.. etc. We discussed that the proces of coming to live, in a ‘live’ situation is  not only depending on the movements of the object but an interaction between object, manipulation and spectator. 


An interesting difference Koen mentioned at the end of the session is the difference in attitude between the AI student and the artists/puppeteer. The students often trained with a problem solving mindset that creates a focus on function and fixing. The artist or puppeteer is more focussed on new creation and possibilities. How to incorporate the ‘playful’ mind of the puppeteer in working with robots and AI is something that deserves further exploration.

At last we discussed possible interesting steps for a next exchange between a theatremaker/puppeteer and students: how to improvise?

  • How to make the pepper robot react in the moment. 
  • How to make the pepper robot connect/react with its physical environment? 
  • How to create material starting from the purpose of the robot.