He's no dummy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

In the movie Terminator II, actor Edward Furlong pokes the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg to check for the machine beneath a fleshy exterior. Most people do the same to Geminoid HI-1, dubbed the world's most advanced android. The imposition brings a swift rebuke: 'Please don't touch me,' Geminoid says. 'It feels strange.'

First meetings with the android, a doppelganger of its creator Hiroshi Ishiguro, can be unsettling. It has the same gimlet-eyed stare and shock of unruly black hair as the Japanese scientist, and an expression poised halfway between irritated and quizzical. When listening to a question, it unnervingly tips its head sideways and narrows its eyes before answering in the voice of the distracted academic.

The human-like responses are the product of dozens of small, pressurised actuators buried beneath the silicone skin, and the voice is Ishiguro's. But visitors to Geminoid's home, a research institute in the government-funded ATR Laboratories outside Kyoto, sometimes think they're meeting the professor instead of his robot.

Even after it becomes clear that they've been hoodwinked by a US$300,000 metal-and-polyurethane lookalike, Ishiguro says people soon become comfortable talking to his creation. 'I have very natural meetings with students using this robot,' he says. 'Initially, some people find him a bit strange, but soon they adapt and treat him quite naturally.'

He says he hopes the robot, which is equipped with cameras and remotely operated via the internet, will be able to stand in for busy teachers one day.

'When I get old, maybe I'll put him in a classroom. Especially in Japan, students never ask questions and the department never checks whether I'm around,' he says, laughing. 'I think it's very feasible.'

Ishiguro divides his working week between ATR and Osaka University, where he teaches computer science and pattern recognition, and spends lunch breaks discussing philosophical issues with his students. 'What is the difference between you and a cockroach, I ask them. I'm more interested in humans than machines. What does it mean to be human? How do we define it? What is its essence?'

Those questions go to the core of the 42-year-old professor's research: the boundary between man and machine. It will be some time before Terminator-style robots can pass themselves off as people, he says, but the line is already blurring, fast.

'We can replace many parts of the body with machines and imprint human-like brains into computers. In the near future, it will be possible to create technology which will make it impossible to distinguish between us.'

As evidence, he cites how much the world is already reliant on technologies such as CCTV, mobile phones and the internet, and says it wouldn't be too hard to pass off a robot as a human on TV.

'The most important thing is appearance and behaviour. Look at some movie stars and pop stars; they don't quite look human,' he says laughing again. 'They look like androids with their flawless skin. Michael Jackson, for instance.'

But why bother developing machines that look like Michael Jackson? Ishiguro says that they'll be increasingly useful as interfaces. 'Our brain is designed to recognise humans, not computers. Children and old people can't use cell phones and computers, but they can talk to this robot, so I think androids will be an ideal communication tool.'

Some businesses agree. Kokoro, the Tokyo robotics company that Ishiguro collaborates with, has been inundated with demands for robot reception staff and museum guides after he made a replica of Japanese newscaster Ayako Fujii, right down to the flawless skin, fluttering eyelids and glossy lips. Some people say his creation, Repliee, looked even better than the real thing.

An international bank (he declines to say which) has asked the company to produce 200 robots to work as tellers in war zones. 'In Afghanistan, they have US and British banks, but they can't hire good people because it's so dangerous. So they want to give high-quality services. Their idea is to use androids, operated remotely.'

Ishiguro says the request is beyond what the company can currently produce.

He doesn't mind such commercial work, but baulks at two possible applications for his creations: sex and war.

He disliked the movies I Robot, which he calls 'violent' and Steven Spielberg's AI because of Gigolo Joe, the 'sexbot' played by Jude Law. 'It's very clear that if we have this kind of technology someone will start a sex business. But I don't like to stress that kind of aspect. I hate that kind of reputation attached to robots.'

Although he has 'seriously thought' of applying to US universities, military research scares him away. 'Everything [there] is related to military applications and I don't want to contribute to that,' he says.

Japanese universities are constrained from developing weapons by a constitutional ban on the use of military force. 'If I got some sort of patent from a military technology I would come under pressure from other professors and be forced to leave.'

Ishiguro's favourite fictional robot is Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man, played by Robin Williams. 'He wants to become human. It's quite a deep movie.' He says Terminator II is most realistic in its portrayal of a world where machines become too powerful and elbow aside humans. 'This phenomenon is happening now. The e-mail system controls my activities. If I don't read e-mail for a while, I have a serious problem. Or if someone spreads something about me on the internet I can't stop it.

'In movies, robots physically hurt or kill people. In our society, the internet and information technology virtually hurts or kills people. We're living in the future now.'