In the future, your best friend might be a robot. It will move and talk like a human. It will have social intelligence, empathy and perhaps even a personality. Casper Bonn Beenfeld Andersen works with the technology that will make all this happen.
There’s nothing new about his fascination with robots. It has been there for as long as Casper can remember back into his childhood. In his Christmas presents, in the books he read, and in the films he saw.
"I was definitely one of those people who always has to take things apart and then put them back together again. Computer engineering was magical for me, and even as a child I could see how it was going to change the world. I became good at programming languages before many others even knew what they were."
Casper belongs to the first generation of digital natives, and he took his early interest in technology and its influence in society all the way through his schooling and on to university.
Casper is the first in his entire family history to go to university.
His mother and father are not what you could call educational snobs. For them, what’s most important is that their children feel good about what they are doing, no matter whether it is unskilled work or research.
After his higher technical exam, Casper went to Aarhus to study nanoscience, but after some time on the programme, he decided that he would rather be an engineer.
"I wanted a better balance between theory and practice. I find it easy to acquire new knowledge, but I’m much happier if I can also apply that knowledge and work on projects. So when I landed on the engineering programme, it was like coming home."
Now Casper can get his hands on everything that was once science fiction to him. He is studying for an MSc in Engineering in computer technology at Aarhus University, and currently he is writing his MSc thesis for a research group working on social robots.
The research is interdisciplinary and is taking place at the interface between psychology, anthropology, philosophy and engineering, and the goal is to develop a new form of artificial intelligence that can give robots a sense of social context.
Casper's job is to design the software and algorithms to control where the robot looks when it is talking to others. And this requires advanced programming that only very few people can deal with.
In the longer term, his work will become facial expressions that can automatically adapt to different social contexts.
"Think about how much eye movement means when we communicate and express feelings. It’s one of the most important aspects to get right if we want robots to behave more human-like."
What’s it like to be an IT engineer on a project that raises the big philosophical, ethical and psychological questions?
Casper replies that it makes him a better engineer.
He sits in his laboratory on his final semester and reflects on what he will be taking with him from his time at university. Top of the list is interdisciplinarity.
"It's something I've been thinking about over the past couple of years. An interdisciplinary approach is the key to finding the coolest technological solutions to all sorts of issues, and very often it’s also a necessity in order to understand the impact of technology on society."