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gate-Startup Devanthro: Brave new man


For years, Rafael Hostettler, general manager of gate-Startup Devanthro, has benn puzzling over a humanoid robot. He has got big plans. Roboy is to solve the health care crisis – and to enable the researcher life after death.

Rafael Hostettler puts his hand on Roboy’s shoulder. The 37-year old tops him by a couple of centimeters, his figure is a little larger, his movements are smoother. One day, Hostettler would like to have more than the life men have known so far. He would like to live and see and experience more than is possible in 100 years. He would like to slip into Roboy’s body. In the beginning only sometimes, when a meeting is too far to travel. Later on more often, when he wants to undertake something, but in old age getting up from bed will be too strenuous. And Hostettler is planning to merge completely with Roboy, after all: Posthumously, he wants to live on as a robot infinitely.

Whether it really comes to the point? Suchlike transformation does not work yet, nobody knows what will be possible one day by the aid of artificial intelligence. But Hostettler believes in it. That’s why he has been screwing and puzzling on Roboy in Munich for eight years, the robot which looks like a human and, sometimes, already behaves like one.

Hostettler grew up in Baden, a swiss small town near Zürich. He is said to have been a curious child, he reports. He has always been rankling with the fact that he cannot understand everything, cannot experience everything in life. „When I was a child, I found robots were pretty boring“, Hostettler says. „And I still find them boring today.“ What fascinates him is the human body, the interaction.

Hostettler studied computer-based sciences in Zürich, – and met Roboy at University in 2013. Rolf Pfeifer, a repsected researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, was developping a humanoid robot which he named Roboy. Hostettler then took care about its repair when parts failed, and travelled around the world together with him in order to present him at fairs or companies. When Pfeifer retired little later, nobody knew what was to become of Roboy. Hostettler, having moved to Munich in the meantime and working on a research project at the technical university, took him in. „I have adopted him“, he says.

Hereupon, Hostettler founded the company Devanthro, organized research and company funds. Occasionally, 50 employees, students and volunteers were working on Roboy, computer scientists and physicists, but also biologists and an anthropologist. „I myself, I am neither a good engineer nor a good software developer“, Hostettler says. „I am more like a visionary.“ A big dreamer.

There are only a few companies worldwide which develop humanoid robots, maybe 20, Hostettler guesses. The idea behind: In order to create manlike artificial intelligence, it is necessary to create a humanoid robot first. As artificial intelligence cannot be simply coded, it needs to be learned. Meanwhile the third version of Roboy has been finished. Hostettler calls him no longer robot, but Robody, i.e. robotic body. The big aim: With his aid people shall interact and connect with each other across larger distances.

The robot has ten fingers and ten toes. His tendons are imitated by cords, the muscles are made of metal. There is no blood flowing through his body, but electric current. Roboy twinkles with big saucer eyes, his mouth moves when speaking. Putting on virtual-reality-glasses and taking the two controllers in his hands, Hostettler can operate via telepresence. He sees what Roboy sees. He hears what Roboy hears. He can even make him talk. Roboy has a female voice. Roboy is already able to pedal a bicycle, he has already sold ice cream and played records as a DJ. A few weeks ago, he visited a retirement home at Lake Starnberg. This is what Hostettler’s company is working on in cooperation with the Charité Berlin and the research center for information technology in Karlsruhe: Roboy is to support geriatric care. „We want to solve the health care crisis“, states Hostettler thinking big also in this field. His team is presently devloping a prototype which is to be finalized within two years. One day millions of care-Robodies around the world would take care of elder people. They are supposed to help with taking a shower or dressing up and raise an alarm, when a person suffering from Alzheimer has lost herself. Nursing stuff could direct them via telepresence, protecting their own spines and work at the home-office every now and then. Other companies, too, are presently working on such robots worldwide. Brave new world? For Hostettler it is rather: almost reality.

In the retirement home at Lake Starnberg not only the nursing staff was enthusiastic about Roboy, but also the residents, Hostettler says. An elderly man instantly put on the VR-goggles. Roboy is well received because of his friendly facial expression, this is well calculated. „I don’t want to create a terminator“, says Hostettler. „I want to help people.“ At presentations on trade fairs, Roboy gets positive reactions most of the time. „He is the most hugged robot in the world“, says Hostettler.

Quite recently, his company has moved from Garching to the Munich Urban Colab in Munich’s creative quarter Neuhausen , a think-tank for the tech-crowd. The boxes are not cleared yet, some shelves are still empty. Hostettler is not a typical startup-guy. He wears black leather shoes instead of white sneakers, the crate carries a fizzy drink, no Club-Mate.

When he is talking about Roboy, he does not use management phrases, does not throw around scientific terms. He reports vividly about Roboy, as if they were on a common adventure trip. How he and Roboy travelled to a competition in Miami last September in order to present the telepresence solution, but went away empty-handed and thus having to take his hardest battering so far, as Hostettler reports. Or how the robot is to learn to scratch his head and look sad.

At the beginning of the corona pandemics Roboy moved in with Hostettler, they lived in a kind of man-machine-flatshare for weeks. Hostettler would not call Roboy a friend, he rather regards him as a memorial. „He reminds me of waht we have created“, the researcher says. „And yet he brings to mind that it is still a long way to go, he reminds us to get faster.“

Whether Hostettler will send out Roboy one day in order to hug his parents, instead of taking the train to Switzerland? Whether in 50 years robots will populate the planet Earth together with men, like in „Star Wars“? Whether we will really live on after death, like in the Amazon-series „Upload“, where men can upload their consciousness to a digital afterworld? And what would this do to all of us? How would relations feel like, when no longer playing between two persons but between man and machine? How would it change life if it simply went on on earth after death? Hostettler would love to try. „If it fails you are dead“, he says. „If you don’t try, you’ll be dead just as well.“

Now the robot looks exhausted. He is sitting on a chair in front of a big window, a hanging gadget puts him upright. Hostettler ramps the system. Roboy flutters his eyelashes once again, then his arms are dangling flabbily.

Fotos: Robert Haas

SZ Nr. 80, 6. April 2022 – Autorin: Lisa Sonnabend