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Hiroshi Ishiguro:

Social Robots to be the Next Smartphones


Social Robots to be the Next Smartphones


The bionic robot designed by Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro can speak, act in a play and host a TV program. Aside from robots resembling human beings, Ishiguro has also released a simple companion robot that he predicts will become as indispensable to us in the future as smartphones

Social Robots to be the Next Smartphones

By Liang-rong Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 587 )

When Silicon Valley startup entrepreneur Martin Ford, author of the science fiction bestseller Rise of the Robots, talked about the launch of the social robot Pepper by Japan’s SoftBank Group in a recent interview with CommonWealth Magazine, he indicated that he felt it was just a publicity stunt. Ford thinks the Japanese are too preoccupied with creating robots with a human appearance, which he insists is not the main goal of robotics. The ability of robots to accomplish their missions, Ford believes, is what really matters.

Robotics scientists in Japan and the United States have long been engaged in a dispute over whether robots should be human-like or not. This heated debate reached its peak after the core melt-down at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northern Japan in 2011. Eventually, the first robot to enter the highly radioactive, ruined nuclear plant was an American product built by U.S. technology company iRobot Corporation. The PackBot, a tactile mobile crawler vehicle equipped with an extendable arm manipulator, has no humanoid features at all.

For Japan’s robotics engineers this was tantamount to a slap in the face. Consequently, they began to doubt whether they were on the right track. Was Japan really overly fascinated by robots that looked like humans? Did its scientists waste too much time and resources on building humanoid robots?

Children and the Elderly

Ishiguro, an Osaka University professor and head of the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, is the standard bearer for the "humanoid" robotics camp. He shot to world fame ten years ago when he presented lifelike humanoid robot Repliee Q1, also known as Ando-san, to the public at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. The robot, with the appearance of a human female, stunned the audience with articulate body language and fluent, seemingly natural conversations with visitors.

“The Americans were wrong,” Ishiguro declares in a telephone interview.

He points out that ample research proves that humanoid robots have many advantages in social interaction with humans and in the field of service robots. Robots with human features are more easily accepted by elderly people and children. “It is because the human brain has numerous functions to identify human faces," he says.

In the decade since the 2005 World Expo, Ishiguro and his team have created a series of humanoid robots of different sizes and gender appearances. The most famous among them is Geminoid HI-1, a full-size robotic clone of Ishiguro. Ishiguro and his lookalike are both 175 centimeters tall. Geminoid HI-1 sports the same unruly shock of black hair as his human twin. In fact, Ishiguro provided some of his own hair for the robot.

Ishiguro and his robotic double both wear the all-black outfit that has become the scientist's trademark. The pair, resembling identical twins when sitting next to each other, draw the media spotlight wherever they appear.

Ishiguro and his artificial doppelganger have been featured on the cover of Science Magazine and appeared in a scene of Surrogates, a 2009 Hollywood science fiction film starring Bruce Willis. In the movie Ishiguro plays himself, as he is one of the initiators of lifelike bionic robots. In this future world, people interact through so-called "surrogates." Humans, who remain holed up in the comfort and safety of their homes, experience the risks and dangers of life in the real world through their artificial surrogates, whom they control through mind power.

While the movie seems somewhat surreal, its plot is already partially becoming reality.

The lifelike android actors that Ishiguro and his team have built in recent years are already performing in the company of human counterparts on theater stages across Japan. The Ishiguro team’s female Geminoid F stars in Sayonara, a science fiction drama about the relationship between two friends in the wake of a nuclear disaster, which was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival this year.

Man vs. Machine

A Taiwanese scholar who knows Ishiguro well describes the man in black with a single word: "cool." “If no one lets you in on the truth, the way he dresses and behaves makes you think that he is an artist,” the scholar says. 

In his youth, Ishiguro actually aspired to become an artist, but he gave up his dream when he was diagnosed with a mild form of color blindness. Interestingly, Ishiguro went on to become an expert on computer vision. While studying at the University of Yamanashi in Kofu Ishiguro successfully developed a guide robot for the blind.

“I am not interested in machine men; I am interested in humans,” Ishiguro says. “These researchers who are so passionate about machine men will never be able to make a humanlike robot because they don’t like to interact with real humans; they only like machines. But I like to interact with people, I want to understand the meaning of the human appearance,” the scientist notes as he elaborates on what drives his research of humanoid robotics.

Ishiguro’s philosophical ponderings resemble the musings of his favorite on-screen robot, Lieutenant Commander Data of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which aired in the United States from 1989 to 1994. While Data looks like a human being and has impressive brain power, he eternally strives to understand the essence of humanity and how androids differ from human beings.

Ishiguro has thus become a master of the emerging field of android science, which marries the cognitive sciences with robotic engineering into an interdisciplinary framework.

Hiroshi Ishiguro (first from the left) believes that social robots will become part of our lives. (from the right: Sota, CommU, female android Geminoid F)

Ishiguro summed up his basic ideas in an article published ten years ago: “To make the android human-like, we must first analyze human activity from the standpoint of cognitive science, behavioral science and neuroscience, and then use this knowledge to design the android.”

The biggest challenge to the use of androids in human society is what experts call the "uncanny valley." Coined by Japanese robotics scientist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, the term describes the region of negative emotional response toward humanlike robots. The more human-looking a robot is, short of being indistinguishable from one, the more likely humans will perceive its behavior as strange and react with a feeling of revulsion and uncanniness.

“Alike and yet not the same, like a zombie, an android can be very frightening,” explains Young Kuu-young, professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering of National Chiao Tung University, who spent half a year at the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories in Japan.

Avoiding the Uncanny Valley

Ishiguro designed a psychological experiment together with his students. They found that 70 percent of test participants recognized an android as a robot when it appeared shortly from behind a curtain. However, when the android was programmed to make some unconscious small movements such as shrugging its shoulders, moving its eyes or shaking its head, the ratio of those believing they had seen a robot dropped to 30 percent. Therefore, all robots in Ishiguro’s fold have been equipped with precisely calculated “micro motion” functions.

Ishiguro's newest endeavor is to enable robots to have "intentional desire." “Only if robots have intentional desire do they resemble humans,” he says. Under this five-year project, Ishiguro and his team aim to create an android with the psyche of a moody adolescent girl "who craves attention, but is often exhausted and very emotional.

Young says that although it may seem like Ishiguro is dabbling in entertainment circles and commercial applications with his lifelike robots, he remains a true scientist at heart who wants to ultimately answer the big philosophical question “what makes humans human.” “He wants to create a robot that is as humanlike as possible. The remaining parts where this likeness cannot be reached would then be the uniquely human," says Young in elaborating on Ishiguro’s quest into the essence of humanity.

“These other [android technologies] are all just spin-offs,” Young says.

Among Ishiguro’s latest spin-off products are tabletop companion robots CommU and Sota, which stand some 30 centimeters tall. The simpler one, Sota, which stands for “social talker,” went on sale earlier this year by Ishiguro's company Vstone. The robot, which costs less than 100,000 yen (about NT$27,000), mainly targets the developer community.

When the cute-looking Sota talks with humans, he turns his body and gestures with his arms. The social robot is a simpler, smaller version of Ishiguro’s other android robots.

Ishiguro points out that Sota's foremost function is to assist its users with foreign language learning. “Why is the English of the Japanese so bad? It is because they do not have a study companion and because they do not dare to open their mouths," he posits. The adorable Sota might enable adults to let down their defenses, relax and start to talk with it.

Ishiguro believes that the market releases earlier this year of simple companion robots like Sota and SoftBank’s Pepper are only the first step in the integration of social robots into human society.

“In the future, we will have many social robots, one per person, just like smartphones and computers,” Ishiguro predicts.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz