What Humanoids Can Teach Us About Being Human

Why design a robot version of yourself? Asian Scientist Magazine picks the brain of world-leading robotics scientist, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, to find out.

AsianScientist (Jan. 3, 2017) – What makes us human? Philosophers, poets and scientists alike have wrestled with this question for centuries. Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, approached the subject in a rather personal way—by creating a robot doppelgänger of himself.

Molded in the image of its creator, the HI-2 Geminoid (from the Latin geminus, meaning ‘twin’) has a plastic skull, metal skeleton, silicone skin, polyurethane foam flesh, and pneumatic actuators that afford it fifty degrees of movement. Ishiguro teleoperates it remotely, using a microphone and camera to capture his voice and head and face movements, which are then reproduced on the Geminoid. To add to the human likeness, the robot can also blink, fidget and ‘breathe.’

Ishiguro sometimes uses his android twin to give lectures and attend meetings, which, considering his hectic schedule—he is also a visiting group leader at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute (ATR) International in Kyoto—must come in handy. But the Geminoid serves a much larger purpose. Creating very human-like robots, Ishiguro told Asian Scientist Magazine, allows him to study human-robot interactions, and perhaps even attempt to understand human nature itself.

The honor of your (human) presence is requested

Most robots today are used for mechanical grunt work. A bot that assembles products on a conveyor belt, vacuums floors, or transports heavy loads doesn’t have to look like us—in fact, it probably wouldn’t function as well if it did. As artificial intelligence improves, however, robots are poised to become much more integrated into society.

Ishiguro envisions them as companions for the elderly or homebound, as conversational partners for people learning a language, or as a means of remote communication. But before robots can perform such roles, they will need to look and behave the part. “The human has a brain that naturally interacts with humans,” he explained.

Using the Geminoid, one aspect of our humanness that Ishiguro has tried to unravel is that of human presence—the feeling that we are in the presence of another human being. How do humans convey this feeling, and could a robot ever be an adequate stand-in?

Ishiguro observed that people were able to chat naturally with the Geminoid after getting over their initial uneasiness; children were able to adapt as well. In further experiments, people felt a teleoperator’s presence more strongly if he talked through the Geminoid than if he simply appeared on a videoconferencing screen. In general, people interacted with the Geminoid in much the same way as they would with other humans, suggesting that human-like robots can indeed transmit human presence, although not perfectly. Studies like these, he hopes, will help researchers design a new generation of social robots—ones that look and behave in ways that humans can relate to.

If interacting with human-like robots feels slightly strange to the audience, what is it like for the teleoperator? In 2009, the Geminoid traveled to Linz, Austria, as part of an exhibition at the Ars Electronica museum. Ishiguro, teleoperating it from his office in Japan, could see from the robot’s point of view through external cameras mounted above it.

“Once I concentrated on the teleoperation, I could have a very realistic feeling of being in Austria,” Ishiguro recalled. But the moment he was distracted, he felt himself transported right back to Japan. “It’s a matter of concentration—I could exist in both places simultaneously.”

Another phenomenon he has experienced is a feeling of touch on his own skin when someone pokes at the silicone hide of the Geminoid, despite the lack of a physical connection between the two. Teleoperators controlling the Geminoid through a brain-machine interface, which scans brain activity and transmits the operator’s thoughts as commands to the robot, have also reported a similar sensation, he said.

These immersive experiences are of great interest to Ishiguro, who is working with cognitive scientists to study them in more detail.

“This means that we can connect human brain activities to the Geminoid’s body—the human brain can accept the Geminoid’s body as our own body,” he added.

This capability bodes well for the possibility of human-like robot bodies being used by the severely handicapped, he said. But since brain-machine interface technology is still rudimentary—for now, only binary decisions or simple commands can be detected and transmitted—this is still years away.

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Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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