The online version of British publication The Telegraph reported on Wednesday that an elderly-caring humanlike robot had been unveiled in Japan and was set to be flying off the assembly line "within days". Yet one of the scientists who worked on "robogirl" tells us that it was "unveiled" six years ago, and has no chance of being mass produced for the next ten years.
"Robot that looks like young girl unveiled" read the headline about the Repliee R-1 humanoid robot, posted on the Telegraph's online edition on Wednesday. The story then went on to say that the robot was designed to look after the elderly, and that robotics company Cyberdyne "hopes to start mass producing the models within days", leading you to believe that robots would be putting your mother's slippers on by the end of the week. The news was linked to the 2001 sci-fi film AI: Artificial Intelligence; when humanoid robots start to develop emotions and all hell breaks loose. It's also reported in the article that an earlier version of the robot, the Repliee Q1, was criticised for spasms. The Repliee Q1 was in fact built a year after the R-1, and suffered no technical difficulties.
When we tried to contact the author of the piece, he wasn't available, so the source of these "reports" goes unknown. One of the computer scientists who worked on the robot, which was designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro at Osaka University, tells us that the article was based on "junk from the blogosphere", and another explains what kind of robots we really will be sharing our homes with.
Repliee R-1, the robot in question
"Since [this robot] there have been several robots in this series"
Karl MacDorman is one of the computer scientists who developed Repliee R-1 at Osaka University. He's now an associate professor in the human-computer interaction programme at Indiana University.
This robot is six-years-old. It was built in 2002 and used in psychological experiments by Shoji Itakura (Kyoto University) and Hiroshi Ishiguro. A cast was taken of Ishiguro's six-year-old daughter for the robot, which is controlled by DC motors - one reason why the movements are a bit jerky. Since then, there have been several robots in this series: Repliee Q1, which is based on the "average world face of a female," and controlled by air actuators; Repliee Q1Expo, whose head is a copy of Ayako Fujii, the NHK news announcer (it replaced her on the news once), and Geminoid, which is a copy of Hiroshi Ishiguro himself.
The reporter was just repeating junk from the blogosphere. This company [Cyberdyne], which makes robotic body suits, has nothing to do with Hiroshi Ishiguro's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University.
Plus, we had no problem at all with spasms and Repliee Q1 ever! Repliee Q1, Repliee Q1Expo, Repliee Q2, and Geminoid all have very smooth movement, because they are controlled by air actuators. The technical term is "compliance." Sometimes I would say they are even a little too smooth, which can make a rapid wave of the hand look a bit wobbly.
Karl with a robot from the same series, Repliee Q1Expo. Photo: Peter Kahn.
Seventy per cent of the people could not tell that this robot was an android, although they were seated face-to-face only three metres away in a brightly lit lab. The reason they were fooled is partly because of Repliee Q1Expo's autonomic movement: breathing, blinking, making eye contact, subtly repositioning itself on the seat, etc.
A video of me taking tea with Repliee Q1. Unlike in North America, Japanese tend to break eye contact by looking down while thinking. They also do this when interacting with an android, but only if they believe it to be under human control. This is the first time it has been shown that what people think about the mind of the other-human or machine-influences how they break eye contact."
"We're certainly going to be living in a world full of robots"
Noel Sharkey is a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at Sheffield University. He created the "eMo" robot, which was the first to be able to convey human emotions.If you look at a very mechanical-looking robot then you dispend belief, but as they get more realistic, they're able to provoke real emotion. The concept is called the "uncanny valley" - when they're so realistic people are disturbed. I find the little girl very spooky; like some kind of psycho. Ishiguro's first robot was quite doll-like and not as convincing. Less perfection and more human failing seems to get you closer to reality.
This kind of humanoid robot will be used mainly for elderly and child care. We can see it as a nanny of the future. You can also see through her eyes [on a computer elsewhere] so you can keep an eye on who she's looking after. Old people in Japan really like them, there's also a cuddly seal robot called Paro that's popular with dementia sufferers. I'm really concerned with the ethics of all this though, as with the development of natural language processing, which means you can have a conversation with a robot, an old, poor sighted or demented person could believe it was a companion. There's also going to be a lot of interest in these in the sex market. The former robot, who is a young woman, would be the ultimate sex doll for people who like that kind of thing. Or if you were rich and childless, you could get the child robot out of the cupboard while you're watching TV and have it playing on the floor.
We're certainly going to be living in a world full of robots - but they won't all look like humans, and we're not getting anywhere with intelligence. Robots are simply labour saving tools - they do dull, dangerous or dirty work. I think they'll also be used for policing in the future - in the form of moving security cameras for example. If a noisy crowd comes by, it might turn on and record it. The only problem is of course, who's controlling them. If it's the government and the police, then they'll have too long a reach on the law.
There are already between 4,000 and 6,000 robots in use in Iraq - most of them are bomb disposal units, but some can fly and communicate between themselves. It's likely that robots will be mixed with biological beings. By attaching a dish of neurons to a robot, they've already created remote-controlled cockroaches in the US."