Japanese robotocist Hiroshi Ishiguro is building androids to understand humans—
starting with himself. (Photo by Makoto Ishida).
Subtly but surely, robots are making their way into our everyday lives. By some estimates, 8.5 million service robots are already in use worldwide, doing a wide range of tasks such as performing surgery, milking cows, and handling meat. They don’t resemble the friendly characters promised by science fiction, such as C-3PO from Star Wars and Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons. But in a not-too-distant future, that may change. Robots will serve up our daily java at Starbucks and assist people with physical therapy. “But,” writes Erico Guizzo, associate editor of IEEE Spectrum, “to be accepted in these roles, robots may have to behave less like machines and more like us.”
Osaka University engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro has been a pioneer in the humanization of robots. Early in his career, he built one robot that “looked like a trash can with arms” and another that “resembled an overgrown insect.” People did not react well to these creations, Guizzo reports; they couldn’t relate to them.
To better understand the role appearance plays in communication, Ishiguro, who is 46, built an android to look exactly like himself. His “mechanical doppelgänger” is made of silicone rubber, pneumatic actuators, powerful electronics, and hair from his own head. The “geminoid” (derived from geminus, the Latin word for twin) has no autonomy; Ishiguro controls it remotely from his computer. When Ishiguro speaks, the android reproduces his speech. It blinks, twitches, and appears to breathe. It can even attend meetings for him on campus (though it can’t get to the meetings on its own, and the university won’t pay Ishiguro for his geminoid’s time). Unlike the human Ishiguro, however, it doesn’t smoke.
Robots may one day be indistinguishable from humans, but as Ishiguro’s creation shows, the “uncanny valley” (as one robotocist put it) between life and lifelike remains. The technology blog Gizmodo included Ishiguro’s Frankenstein in its list of “10 Creepy Machines From Robot Hell.” Nonetheless, as the technology improves and people spend more time with androids, the machines may lose their unnerving edge. Ishiguro has found that at first people seem uneasy around his geminoid, but they quickly warm to it. Pet owners are particularly adept at reading its nonverbal cues. “Humankind is always trying to replace human abilities with machines. That’s our history,” Ishiguro says. “I’m doing the same thing. Nothing special.”