For many years there was a convention in Hollywood that every film villain was either a European with a thick accent or a robot. Alas, these days it's all sexy vampires fighting sexy werewolves and unsexy zombies. Our declining fear of robots, androids and cyborgs - or our increasing acceptance of such machines - could be occurring just as the field of robotics comes of age.
Robots have been among us for a number of years, but what the popular imagination conjures up doesn't necessarily coincide with the rather drab, metallic and mundane reality of present day robotics. Think of all the 'intelligent' vacuum cleaners available or the industrial robots used to make cars. So far, so not the science fiction nightmare imagined by the likes of Isaac Asimov and depicted in films such as Blade Runner.
Enter Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, who's visiting Hong Kong to show off the Geminoid F robot. On display at the Robots in Motion 2012 Expo at CityPlaza in Taikoo Shing until April 15, the Geminoid F is the cutting edge of life-like androids and is an eerily flawless copy of a Japanese female in her mid-20s. The 'F' stands for female - she has soft facial features made of silicone and long, black hair. But the real advance is the way that Geminoid F can smile, frown and exhibit other facial expressions.
For Ishiguro the goal is to create robots that are as human as possible. Much of his academic work deals with the 'uncanny valley' hypothesis, which charts human reaction to lifelike robots and their movements.
'When a robot has a very human-like appearance and jerky movements, it looks like a zombie. That is uncanny,' says Ishiguro, adding that this is likely to cause a negative reaction in humans.
Ishiguro has grappled with the uncanny valley hypothesis for decades, and first made headlines in 2006 when he unveiled an intelligent robotic replica of himself. He is confident that every year the field of robotics is advancing further from his first android, of his daughter, which he recalls with a laugh as being 'at the bottom of the uncanny valley'.
With the science of robotics developing so fast, acceptance is growing, but for Ishiguro, perception of robots varies from region to region. Japan continues to lead the world in robot technology, in terms of both industrial and commercial robots and also interactive robots.
'Compared with Europeans and Americans, Japanese people are far more accepting of robots,' says Ishiguro. 'Europeans and Americans seem to have a problem with human-like robots.'
Ishiguro ascribes this Western suspicion to intellectual cul-de-sacs on the issue of 'what is human'. But he is unfazed by the philosophical questions surrounding robots.
'As a scientist, my job is to create new things, not to think about morality.'
He believes it is inevitable that robots will play a greater role in our lives, the chief reason being practicality. 'I've started to work on interactive robots, robots that deal with daily life and daily situations. In Japan, we have an ageing and declining population, but we still expect the same quality of life,' he says. 'Robots can fill the gap created by a falling population.'
In Japan, work is already under way to install robot helpers in old people's homes, as well as childcare providers, and the professor is working on information robots to be placed in shopping malls. Ishiguro also sees the benefits of so-called surrogate robots to the physically challenged, which can perform tasks or eventually provide a presence for the operator that is twinned with the robot. This was recently illustrated in the film Surrogates, which was not only based on Ishiguro, but features a cameo by the man himself.
However, not all the possibilities provided by robots are altruistic. The professor confesses to conducting some of his lectures at Osaka University through his surrogate android when the idea of commuting to work doesn't take his fancy. With the surrogate manning the stage, Ishiguro teleconferences the lecture from the comfort of his home via the mouth of the surrogate. He jokingly proposes that future versions of Geminoid F could be the answer to the prayers of lonely men the world over and offers to build a wife for those willing to part with a few million dollars.
Geminoid F, upon closer inspection, is soon revealed for what it is. But where a quick glance was once enough to dispel any doubt, now a double take is required, and soon androids will fool people into thinking they are real people for far longer. The walls of the uncanny valley still remain high, but given the practical motives, the breakneck speed of technological advancements and the infectious enthusiasm of evangelists such as Ishiguro, it's easy to believe that the robotic revolution is just around the corner.