repliee: our friend electric

In September 2007, Richard travelled to Osaka to meet android designer Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro who explained his work on robotics and revealed that how his research is leading him to ask – what does it mean to be human?

The Intelligent Robotics Lab at the University of Osaka is situated on a quiet campus to the north of Japan’s second largest sprawling metropolis, Osaka. The city is a living embodiment of a Blade Runner future – in more ways than one… On a humid day in mid-September, hot sun beats down on anonymous multi-storey buildings surrounded by leafy driveways. At the doorway to the fourth floor lab at the School of Adaptive Machine Systems building, a prototype Wakamaru (the home robot recently marketed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) keeps guard.

Ishiguro-san cuts a dynamic figure. A fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Rolling Stones, he is dressed in black (like all good guys), with a shock of jet black hair, he is lean and focused at forty-three years old. Born in Japan’s old capital, Kyoto, he grew up watching cartoons and, like many young boys, he ‘wanted to build things’. As a teenager, this creative drive steered him to become an oil painter until giving it up as an undergraduate. A degree in computer science led to initial work on visual recognition systems, where he created his first vision-guided robots.

ReplieeQ2 android & Prof Ishiguro

Design Matters

Around this time he realised, in line with other leading A.I. researchers, that for artificial minds to develop, they needed bodies and from this came a focus on the then-neglected social aspect of robotics. ‘No one was doing any work on how robots looked and how that affected our interactions with them. No one cared about how they looked,’ he states. Subsequently, he concentrated on the design of a kit robot that led to one of his first major achievements, the Robovie, an advanced humanoid.kit robot that is now widely available.

His aesthetic efforts continued with a prototype that became the Wakamaru robot, developed with the renowned Japanese designer, Toshiyuki Kita. Ishiguro was coming to realise that we humans have a tendency to seek human-like qualities in animals, cuddly toys and cartoon characters. This is something that people seem to do almost instinctively. Similarly, he discovered we also anthropomorphise robots.

Ishiguro believes that emotion and consciousness are subjective and arise from our interactions with each other – ‘I wanted to look at which is more important, behaviour or appearance? What effect would a robot with basic human-like behaviours and a pleasing appearance have on those who interacted with it?’

Navigating The Uncanny Valley

In 2001, Ishiguro embarked on a remarkable new path – he made a child-sized android modelled on his daughter, who was six years old at the time. ‘The skin was difficult to construct and movement was restricted, due to limited funds’ he recalls, ‘it took a whole year to make the skin sensors for that particular robot’. This result was Repliee R1, and came from a partnership with Kokoru Dreams, a Tokyo-based animatronics company, who made the silicon material for the robot’s skin.

The results were mixed – not everyone reacted well to the android, least of all Ishiguro’s daughter, who reportedly refused to enter the lab where the android was kept. But the project had its successes – including important details such as eye-blinking, facial movement and a groundbreaking human-like appearance. The main drawback was a range of movement which made the R1 awkward and contributed to the dreaded Uncanny Valley effect – a phenomenon where robots appear zombie-like – the exact opposite of what robot makers want to achieve.

His next project, in 2004, was to create the Repliee Q1, an android adult whose facial features were gender-neutral – it had attributes of both male and female faces and could be dressed as either a man or a woman. ‘Ultimately’, he says, ‘we chose to dress it as a female because most people, and particularly children, respond well to a female figure.’

Q1 had an increased range of movement and could respond to speech and touch and consequently, it was even more lifelike. Additional versions of the Q1 – the Kokoru Dreams ‘Actroid Repliee Q1 Expo’ – were demonstrated at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan, where they acted as multi-lingual receptionists to the show’s visitors. But it was in the details that the Q1 really scored – blinking, eye movement and simulated breathing made it more alive, less robotic.

Ishiguro then took the android concept even further with the Q2, which again had developed its motion capacity and could see, hear, speak and modify its position in relation to visitors through a distributed array of omni-directional microphones and video cameras. A network of floor sensors also told it where a visitor is standing, allowing the robot to turn and face those who are addressing it. ‘At the moment,’ Ishiguro explains, ‘there is not enough A.I. to have the robot do all this processing onboard, so its sensors are external. We could make the robot walk if we wanted, but this is not the priority in our research right now.’

ReplieeQ2 android side imageDuplicates & Surrogates

Additional projects have involved the Professor in experiments with robots acting as guides in museums – directing people to particular exhibits and facilities. The same principle has also been tested in shopping malls. Future applications envision the use of tele-present human operators as a back-up for when the robot’s on-board knowledge runs out – difficult questions will be routed through to staff based at remote locations.

Another experiment placed a robot in a classroom full of schoolchildren and Ishiguro reveals ‘whilst A.I. won’t let the robot follow multiple conversations, the robot could recognise each child via RFID tags. The longterm goal is for the robot to know which children are making friends – and which children are being isolated or bullied.’

He returned to android development for his next major project in 2006 – perhaps the most startling so far. The Geminoid was an exact replica of the professor himself, even down to having human hair implanted in its head. ‘I built it so that I could be in two places at once’. The robot, being based some distance away from his Osaka lab, allows a form of teleconferencing – Ishiguro saves on travel time and has even used it to hold TV interviews while he stays at the University. Other experiments have again involved his daughter, with the android acting as a surrogate father while her real father is away.

Video of her reactions show a somewhat inhibited, if still playful, response. Other tests with a four-year old get a much better reaction – ‘younger minds are less discriminating in their view of what is and isn’t human!’ Perhaps most intriguingly several researchers, including Ishiguro, have reported that when the Geminoid is touched, they can ‘feel’ the sensation of being touched too, even though there aren’t the sensors to allow this to happen. This strange and unexpected development is now leading him to look at the whole area of what it is to be human and what – and where – consciousness is.

ReplieeQ2 full lengthHiroshi Ishiguro could be described as a workaholic. He has three separate, concurrent professorships – covering the Repliee androids at Osaka University, The Geminoid at ATR in Kyoto and the CB2 biomimetic robot (a child-sized attempt to model a human-like mind from infancy) is at another Erato. He also has a venture capital company. A new project seeks to create an exact artificial replica of the human arm (and later an entire body), so that spare parts can be engineered for amputees. No wonder he saw the need to create an android replica of himself.

The professor is passionate about the duties of scientists and what they should achieve on behalf of the public, with public money – ‘we are here to continue research and to make a better world, not build and preserve our own small empires’. He is also a devoted father, and comes across as a complex character – pragmatic and direct.

Recent years have seen the cancellation of Sony’s Aibo, the withdrawal of Mitsubishi’s Wakamaru and the closure of Nagoya’s Robot Museum and he is keen to downplay expectations of android development. ‘It could take up to one hundred years to create a truly lifelike android’, he says calmly. When questioned on funding, he explains that none of the lab’s money comes from the military, as Japan doesn’t have an army (only a self-defence force) – ‘so we are able to develop robots that help people, not hurt them’. It is perhaps telling that his favourite movie is Bicentennial Man, based on Isaac Asimov’s short story and starring Robin Williams. This tale of a robotic helper who wants to become human is key to Ishiguro’s vision of a future populated with robots that assist us and become useful members of society.

Proud of his country’s achievements in robotics, Ishiguro insists that Japan’s religious grounding in Shinto-ism forms the basis for its leadership in the field – ‘we see the soul in all things, living and inanimate’. He also confirms that David Hanson of Hanson Robotics will soon be coming to the Osaka lab to collaborate on robot projects. Hanson, who is famous for his advanced work on android skins and high profile robots such as Albert Hubo and the Philip K. Dick android, will work with Ishiguro on his next project. ‘It’s more of a mechanical looking robot’ is all he will reveal at this stage.

Whilst Blade Runner style androids may yet be a way off, it is realistic to expect that soon enough, we will see androids and humanoid robots in fixed, closed environments such as museums and shopping centres, giving out directions and other basic information. Then over the next few decades, robots should enter the more fluid environments of our homes and streets.

Japan is perhaps creating robots in the image of its idealised national identity – selfless, helpful, friendly, loyal – the very best that the country has to offer. The national psyche seems to emanate and embrace what Honda’s ASIMO commercials describe as ‘warm technology’. It is interesting to note that Sanrio, the company behind the Hello Kitty phenomenon, is also the company behind Kokoru Dreams – manufacturers of Ishiguro’s androids. If Ishiguro-san has his way, the world of tomorrow will run smoothly and machines with friendly faces and soft skin will be there to help us as we go about our lives.


All images © Richard Evans, 2009.