Their tour has taken them through half of Europe – from Rome to Glasgow, from Slovakia to Warsaw. At every stop they learn something new: Thai Chi, boxing, sometimes a new language, new skills and new perspectives. The Generation A=Algorithm project from the Goethe Institute has sent the humanoid robots Gaia and Nao out on the road until mid 2021 as part of the cultural programme of the German EU Council Presidency. Its aim is to start a constructive discussion about the use of artificial intelligence in our society.
In September Gaia was a guest at the home of 21-year-old Rebecca Klimasch, a digital media student, and Nico Nienaber, 25, a computer science student at the University of Bremen. In October she travelled to Groningen, near Rotterdam, to meet the Dutch artist and computer scientist Floris Maathuis, 43.  

Ms Klimasch, Mr Nienaber, you lived with a robot for four weeks. What was that like?

Nico Nienaber: Gaia arrived from Milan in a large case, packed in bubble wrap. The laptop with the programmes and the router were delivered separately... 

Klimasch: ...I was terribly excited when we unpacked her. I was amazed at how small Gaia was...

Nienaber: ...a bit like a baby, with floppy arms and legs... 

Klimasch: ...then we tried to switch her on, but it didn’t work at first. We were worried we might break something. Eventually, there she was, standing before us in her 'starting position,' looking at us with her camera eyes and saying: “Hello, I’m Gaia.” It was quite touching, really.

Nienaber: To you she was Gaia, I thought of her more as “the robot”. I study computer science, so I’m more down-to-earth. 

What made you welcome Gaia into your home?

Nienaber: I was just curious about how Gaia works on a technical level. I had never even worked directly with a robot before, never mind having one at home. With Gaia there we could do experiments every day...

Klimasch: ...and get to know her better. I was interested in this interaction with a robot as part of everyday life. How does coexistence between humans and machines work? What does it take for it to be successful? For my degree, I’m interested in what we need to consider when shaping the digital world, for instance when using robotic arms as an aid for people with disabilities.

Nienaber: As soon as Gaia arrived we decided to put her through her paces. The team in Milan had taught her some dancing skills, she spoke a little Italian, and she was able to hold someone’s hand and take a few steps with them. 

Nico Nienaber and Rebecca Klimasch with Gaia, and the Robot in her delivery box © privat

What did you want to teach Gaia?

Nienaber: To play football. The University of Bremen is a leading authority on programming football robots, and an eight-time world champion in international robot football competitions. Of course, these robots are trained for years. It was difficult to make much progress with Gaia. Even so, we managed to teach her how to kick a ball. 

We wanted to pass on to the rest of Europe a few aspects of north German culture that are particularly important to us.

Klimasch: And she learnt something else from us too: quiz questions about Bremen. When she meets someone now, she says:  “If you want to play football with me, touch my left arm, and if you’re in the mood for a quiz on Bremen...”

...touch my right arm? 

Klimasch: ...exactly! And then she peppers you with questions: What are the north German cabbage tour and the Freimarkt, what does “Moin” mean and when do you say it, or what animals feature in The Town Musicians of Bremen? We wanted to pass on to the rest of Europe a few aspects of north German culture that are particularly important to us.

Did your relationship with Gaia change in the four weeks you spent together?

Nienaber: The more progress we made with programming her, the more interesting and interactive it became. You get to understand what makes the robot tick. More should be done to promote the digital transformation in Germany and Europe; we all need to learn to capably handle this technology. 

Klimasch: By the end, I thought of Gaia as something like a familiar toy. She was designed to seek human closeness. For example, if she falls over while learning a new movement, she says “ouch”. Spending time with Gaia made me realise once again just how important it is for people to lose their fear of robotics if we want to harness the benefits of artificial intelligence. After such a long time, sending Gaia on her way to Rotterdam was really quite tough...

Gaia's day-to-day life with Floris Maathuis in Groningen, the Netherlands: household chores, riding in the buggy,  practising walking, getting ready for boxing training (from top left clockwise) © Floris Maathuis/Pieter van Dijken/Chantalla Pleiter

Groningen, near Rotterdam, to be precise. Mr Maathuis, Gaia moved in with you in early October. Did you find the robot human-like too?

Floris Maathuis: Far too human-like. Gaia is very sweet and harmless. I wanted to get rid of as much of this sweetness as possible. As an artist, I am interested in the extent to which technology changes us as individuals and as a society. Art has the power to make these changes visible. In my work with Gaia I wanted to find out how people react when faced with machines that are unfriendly and sometimes aggressive. 

Gaia is very sweet and harmless. I wanted to get rid of as much of this sweetness as possible. In my work with Gaia I wanted to find out how people react when faced with machines that are unfriendly and sometimes aggressive.

So how did you change Gaia?

Gaia’s movements automatically responded to human speech, and she looked people in the eye to make her appear attentive and interested. I trained her to stop all that. Now, whenever she sees someone she turns her back. Then I borrowed some elements from the horror film “Child’s play”, in which the killer doll Chuckie runs around with bloodshot eyes and a knife in his hand. So now Gaia approaches visitors with flashing red eyes and a knife until she is almost upon them, and at the very last moment she says: “Oh, that was a mistake.” 

You also make use of Gaia’s ability to estimate a person’s age, gender and mood using facial recognition... having her tell people the results to their face, even though she is often utterly wrong. “I think you’re 40” doesn’t go down too well with someone in their late twenties. And I taught her to box. She challenges people to a fight. 

Menacing robot: Gaia learns to box, and challenges humans to fight in the ring © Floris Maathuis/Pieter van Dijken/Chantalla Pleiter

And then you watched how people react to such a weird robot?

Precisely. Many of them were confused, unnerved even. They couldn’t get the measure of her or figure out why she was acting that way, or what she might do next. A machine has no tells: no facial expressions, no body language, no tonal variations. Some people tried to win her over by being nice:  “I want to be your friend, not fight with you.” Others took a more inquisitive approach: How does this machine work? 

But everyone stepped into the ring with her? 

Yes, interestingly everyone accepted the challenge. 

The thing is, Gaia is barely knee-high.

That’s true, but it was more of a metaphorical kind of confrontation. Everyone was willing to face up to her. You could tell just how badly people wanted to form a positive relationship with this machine. Ultimately, everyone saw a personality of sorts in her, which they liked. I think this is because she still appeared small and harmless to them. People seem to feel drawn towards robots. And Gaia was not yet dangerous enough to really make them wary.

Your comments are reminiscent of the science fiction author Isaac Asimov, who was already writing about the dangers of artificial intelligence in the 1960s. In his sci-fi short story Runaround he formulates the “laws of robotics”, designed to protect humans in their coexistence with robots. 

I believe these are very important issues if we want to continue deploying artificial intelligence in all areas of society. We need to think very carefully: How do we want to shape the coexistence between humans and machines? Which tasks can and should be delegated to artificial intelligence? We should be wary of being too hasty to entrust robots with all manner of tasks just because they seem able to perform them quickly and cheaply. Of course artificial intelligence can write texts, for example, but can it really do so as creatively and thoughtfully as people? Humans and machines are good at different things. I believe the future is in cooperation.

In Glasgow Gaia is learning a dance from the New York gay scene. It’s meant to symbolise the importance of fighting for diversity and human rights, for European values.

Now Gaia is in Glasgow...

I spoke to the team there – they are teaching her a dance from the New York gay scene. It’s meant to symbolise the importance of fighting for diversity and human rights, for European values. That’s what makes this project so exciting: on her journey across Europe, Gaia will pick up so many different aspects that, taken together, capture the diversity of the debate surrounding artificial intelligence. 

Learn more: The online event “Intimate Couch Lesson: AI + Europe” on 18 December will explore Europe's relationship with artificial intelligence more deeply. Participants can chat to thirty experts about AI and democracy, privacy and regulations across the continent. Register here.

You can find more information on the cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union here, or in the following film.

The cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union