One of the proposed waves of the future is the realm of robotics. The gap between reality and science fiction has narrowed every day as more and more advanced robots are developed, and their role in society in the years to come has been much discussed and debated. Some see them as a sort of savior for humankind, while others see them as a threat. There seems to be no conclusive agreement on how much of a good idea it is to pursue AI and robot technology, but one thing many can agree on is that some robots are inherently creepier than others. From the land of Japan, which is at the forefront of robot technology, we have both astounding and decidedly spooky developments, including some robots that just seem to be from a surrealist nightmare. Here we will take a trip into the world of one of Japan’s leading robot developers and his strange menagerie of strange creations that manage to amaze and repulse in equal measures.
One of the most innovative and oddball personalities within the world of Japanese robotics is a man named Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, which is a part of the Department of Systems Innovation in the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University, Japan. One of Ishiguro’s aims in the field of robotics is to create ever more human-like androids for the purpose of interacting with us and giving us what he calls “a strong sense of presence,” as well as serving to “better integrate them into the everyday lives of the people they serve.” He is also interested in using human-like robots to explore what it means to be human, our very nature, intelligence, and behavior, using his realistic robots as what he calls “test beds for my hypotheses,” and hopes that his many creations will find some place in society in such capacities as workers, physical therapy, caring for the elderly, and others. His ultimate goal is to create a robot indistinguishable from a human, able to intermingle with us flawlessly. Yet, one person’s hope for the future is another’s nightmare fuel, and Ishiguro’s laboratory has consistently put out creations that have often been ranked by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) as among the world’s creepiest. Let’s take a look.
Perhaps one of the least human-like, as well as the creepiest, of Ishiguro’s creations is what is called the “Telenoid R1,” meant to be a portable teleoperated android telecommunications robot. Designed to “appear and to behave as a minimalistic human,” it is meant to act as a surrogate to a loved one being spoken to online, to act as their presence in the room during a conversation, what the Japanese call sonzaikan, and according to the laboratory’s website “it’s soft and pleasant skin texture and small, child-like body size allows one to enjoy hugging and communicating with it easily.” That is a nice thought, until you consider the Telenoid’s appearance. Armless and legless, it is as if a dismembered doll, with pale skin and an only rudimentarily vaguely human face with eyes that stare into the soul, it is difficult to imagine anyone feeling as if this could possibly replace a loved one being in the room. To many it is intensely, even nightmarishly creepy, a sentiment which Ishiguro has denied, saying:
Obviously the persons who gave my Telenoid robot that ranking just evaluated it on appearance rather than actually interacting with it. Telenoid has become very popular in many other media, as it can encourage conversations with adults, elderlies especially. I think if people interact with my robot nobody would say it’s creepy. Also, I don’t know the definition of ‘creepiness’ that people use, maybe ‘uncanny’ or something like a zombie? Usually, when we see a humanlike robot, we expect everything to be humanlike, the voice and the movement and so on. But a zombie doesn’t have that humanlike movements, it’s quite jerky. In that sense we could feel a creepiness.
Nevertheless, for many it’s just plain creepy, but we are just getting started. Similarly spooky is a model of robot created by the lab called the “Ibuki.” It is an experiment in what Ishiguro calls “socially developmental robotics,” and takes the form of a child-like android that gets about on a wheeled mount. It is mostly unambiguously robotic looking except for its humanlike face, which can display various emotional expressions and different facial expressions, which are very humanlike but also jerky and somehow “off.” The robot can also utilize numerous gestures and hold basic conversations with its AI system, as well as be controlled remotely by an operator for interacting with people or scaring the bejeezus out of them.
Another well-known Ishiguro creation is what is called the “Actroid,” which is a mannequin sized android that looks significantly more humanlike than the Telenoid or the Itsuki, although whether that is a good thing or not largely depends on the person. First unveiled in 2003, the Actroid appears as an attractive young woman, with lifelike skin, facial movements, and subtle mannerisms such as blinking, fidgeting, even breathing. She can also speak, and is adorned with an array of sensors and air actuators that allow her to react to people in her vicinity as well as to touch. The Actroid is unsettlingly good at mimicking human movements, and it can remember, record, and learn from its interactions with people. It is able to maintain eye contact, give answers to questions and engage in rudimentary conversation, and react nonverbally, all through sophisticated AI that is housed externally, which limits her mobility and forces her to mostly take up a sitting or standing position. The Actroid has appeared at various events charming and creeping people out all the way up to the present, and you can see a video of her talking to a crowd here.
The basic premise of the Actroid has been reworked into various other models, including one of a 5-year-old girl, called the “Repliee,” and others, but Ishiguro really took it to the next level when he decided to create a robotic copy of an actual living person, and what better model to use than himself? To do this, his team used a cast to make a perfect copy of his face and physique, with hyper realistic silicone skin and even hair from Ishiguro’s own scalp, the result being a nearly perfect carbon copy of Ishiguro, called the “Geminoid HI-1.” Beneath its eerie veneer is an improved actuator system, advanced body-control software to generate even finer motions, and powerful software to allow it to mimic even the finest and most subtle human movements. The Geminoid is not meant to be autonomous, and is instead remotely operated, kept completely in synch with the movements and facial expressions of its operator, including blinks, twitches, shrugs, glances, and it even appears to be breathing. Ishiguro has said of his robotic clone:
I think along with understanding society, this robot was also good for understanding humans. When I created my copy, our staff had carefully implemented my appearance, voice and behaviors to the robot. Other people said it was identical to me, but I didn’t think so, because I cannot observe myself objectively. That was an interesting finding, that humans cannot observe ourselves objectively. For example, I’m hearing my voice right now but this voice is different from the recorded voice. And my mirror image is a flipped image. We also researched things such as eye movement, which is very complicated. We can use Geminoid, to investigate the meaning of eye movement. There are many things we’re looking at, and we’re writing a lot of technical papers.
Although it is a remarkable technical achievement, it seems that Ishiguro has mostly used it to attend far away meetings “in person,” as well as to teach courses and creep out his students at Osaka University. Ishiguro seems to think that, while most people are unsettled at first, they soon form a bond with human-looking robots, and that this is the best way towards the future. Indeed, Ishiguro has stubbornly adhered to creating robots that are as human-like as possible, deeming them to the type of robot we are most willing to want to interact with, but not everyone agrees. In fact, there are plenty of people in the field of robotics that think it is important to make sure that they look mechanical and decisively robotic, so as to avoid a natural sense of eeriness and revulsion popularly called “The uncanny valley.” The uncanny valley is a concept in which anything that approaches a human appearance, but not quite, is liable to instill within us feelings of horror and repellence, and it can apply to robotics, computer animation, and dolls. The reaction seems to come the closer an object gets to a barely human state, the more humanlike the stronger the effect, destroying any chance of empathy. No one is sure quite why this happens, with theories ranging from out natural revulsion of “the other” to it reminding us of death, but the point is in robotics fully human looking robots are looking more and more like a dead end for this reason. Not for Ishiguro.
So is this all really good for the future of our species, or is it just the rantings of a mad scientist? Is the future of robotics or the beginning of the end? Do you prefer robots that look like us or those that are more distant from the human form? The work of Ishiguro seems to point into a direction that many might not agree with, and it causes us to think about what the horizon of robotics will look like or act. As we approach a new chapter in technology, robots seem to be here to stay. Will they be benevolent and agreeable, or something else? It is ultimately up to individual preference, but one tends to think we won’t have too much choice in the matter.