On February 6, Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, Professor of Department of Systems Innovations at Osaka University, traveled to the Japan Society in New York City to give a lecture on the future prospects of humanoid robots — or androids. My wife, Jen, and I made the trip, as well.
The theater at the Japan Society was packed, and covered all ages. There was a bustling energy to the evening, and a slide featuring the Gemenoid-F android was projected prominently. The title on the slide was “Studies on Humanoids and Androids,” though the official title of the lecture was “How to Create Your Own Humanoid.” After everyone settled in, Dr. Ishiguro was introduced and he began.
He is a stately looking man and he did take a professorial stance at the podium. Through the lecture, he gave an overview of his work in android development and what he saw in its future. His talk was divided up in a manner of questions that, as a whole, asked if the line between human and robot would ever diminish. In so many words, the answer: it’s unlikely right now.
The Dr. came to explain that there are so many nuances in human behavior and speech that it would be incredibly difficult to create a robot that could act fully human. It’s a little akin to the Replicants in Blade Runner — “we” had created robots (“Replicants”) that could mimic humans in most ways, but that you could still tell, with a test, whether someone/something was human or Replicant. He even offered up a paradox; with robots, we can create the “perfect” human but then you can’t make a robot human.
He made this point through a number of examples, the most prominent is trying to agitate an android by repeated poking. Its behavior wouldn’t deviate accordingly. Humans have odd ways of reacting to stimuli that robots aren’t capable of. However, to illustrate the point that we can make, at least, “perfect” looking robots, he put up a video of a busy cafe and asked us to point out which one was the robot. I certainly couldn’t.
The unreality of robots aside, Dr. Ishiguro explained that his real motivation behind studying robots is human psychology. The example that stands out to me at this moment, is when he explained an experiment he did with one of his androids. While he was in Osaka, he directed some colleagues to plant an android in a cafeteria in Munich. From Osaka, he spoke through the robot and invited people to come, sit and speak with it. What he found was that people were more than willing to open up and spill about their problems. It was intriging, and I imagine people feel comfortable talking to the robot because of a perceived lack of judgement.
It’s examples like that which drew Dr. Ishiguro to robotics, rather than necessarily making the next big technological advance. With that, the lecture came to a close and the panel with Heather Knight, of Marilyn Monrobot, and Erico Guizzo, of IEEE Spectrum, began.
The panel was kicked off by a poem reading by the Gemenoid-F android, which was equal parts beautiful and creepy. After, Guizzo moderated the discussion between Knight and Dr. Ishiguro. The talk weaved between use of robots in theatrical settings and where social robotics is going. Knight explained her interest in robotics and using her robots in theatrical settings.
After the discussion, the floor opened up to questions. For a night that was dominated by non-technical subjects and trying to have robotics reach a wider audience, the questions were — somewhat disappointingly to me — mainly geared toward the technical aspects of the Gemenoid or the technical aspects of robotics.
Once the talk let out, there was a small reception. After it all wrapped up, we sat down with Heather Knight for a wide-ranging discussion. That interview will be posted up tomorrow.
Were you at the discussion, too? Let us know what your experience was on twitter @RobotCentral.