The Japanese creator of the world's most life-like automaton is redefining the interaction between humans and machines If she were sitting in a bar in downtown Tokyo, a glass on the counter in front of her, casting the occasional slow glance around the room, she would inevitably attract male attention. A single woman out for a drink would, after all, be fair game for Japan's Romeos. They would get very close, attempt to catch her eye or engage her in small talk. They might even recognise her as television news presenter Ayako Fuji. Only at this point - when they were within whispering distance - would the uninitiated begin to suspect something was not quite right. 'In a test that we did, 77 per cent of the people did not realise that it was a robot, even when they were very close to her,' said Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University's department of adaptive machine systems and the creator of the world's most life-like robot. Professor Ishiguro is not prone to laughing easily but, as he pats Repliee Q2 on her silicone and steel shoulder, it is clear that he enjoys the joke that he is able to pull on fellow humans. 'It was very difficult to capture her face exactly, but we did it with a 5mm-thick silicone skin that is flexible and a perfect copy. Beneath the skin are sensors that make it more sensitive than that of a human, and 42 actuators are powered by compressed air to make her upper body and arms move like a human [body].' 'All 42 [actuators] have to be controlled to make a single motion that looks human because a person does not make a movement in isolation,' he said. 'Her lips move when she talks, her arms are used to indicate direction and she 'breathes' in and out.' Computers are used to monitor the movements of humans and the template that is produced controls the way Repliee moves. In contrast to the caricature image of a scientist, Professor Ishiguro and his team at the university work in an organised environment. His office is uncluttered, and dominated by bookshelves and a large computer monitor. A packet of cigarettes is never far away. Professor Ishiguro has a staff of 17 and about 80 students. He eschews Japanese convention when it comes to running what is one of the most advanced laboratories of its kind in the world. 'I like to run it more along the lines of an American university - I do not care about [students'] ages because if they are good enough to lead one of our project teams, they are old enough,' he said. 'In June, a team of my VisiON robots won the RoboCup 2005. They acted independent of us when they were on the pitch and had to avoid other players, find the ball, approach it, identify the target and get the ball into the goal. 'Five years ago, it was impossible to predict what androids would be capable of today,' he adds. 'Their abilities are doubling every year, although they are still a long way from humans. Our aim is to develop the technology to make a team of robots that are able to beat the human winners of the soccer World Cup in the year 2050.' The professor used his then four-year-old daughter, Risa, as a model when he made his first humanoid robot five years ago. The robot was a life-size replica created by layering the silicone 'skin' over robotic limbs. 'A robot's appearance is an important factor,' he said. 'Scientists do not care, but it affects humans' interactions a great deal and it would be foolish to simply study the engineering side of robot technology. It is this kind of fundamental thinking that I want to develop - how will robots interact with people in an intelligent way? Is this the way our lives will be in future? 'My wife and daughter often help me with my work, and I use them to interact with robots. For the first 30 minutes or so, my daughter was nervous, but she soon got used to playing with them and talking to them, so in the end she wanted to take one home with her. Her image [of the robot] had changed - it was not a toy, it had become a kind of friend. 'There have been a lot of films from Hollywood about robots recently and it seems to me that we are getting used to the idea of robots in society,' he said. 'I particularly liked the Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man, as its main discussion is what it means to be a human. But other films, like I, Robot, just pick up the negative aspects of androids and ignore the fact that when things do go wrong, it is still possible to build a better relationship between robots and humans.' Professor Ishiguro's work has already begun to achieve that result. Aichi prefecture hosted the World Expo over a period of six months last year and this was used to showcase Japan's cutting-edge robot technology. Visitors admired companies that are sinking billions of yen into androids that do everything from sweeping the streets to pouring the perfect martini or acting as a ballroom dancing partner. A version of Repliee - the Q1expo - was used as a guide, sitting in a booth close to the main entrance and responding to dozens of queries that she had been pre-programmed to recognise and reply to. As in Professor Ishiguro's earlier test, it took a few people some time to realise that they were not communicating with a human. While the professor recognises that humanoid robots have hundreds of potential applications, he dismisses speculation that androids could be our physical companions in the near future. 'It is a conclusion that some people leap to, but I am not interested in that at all,' he said. He does, however, have some major hurdles to overcome, including improving his creation's recognition capabilities, getting her to walk, and making her actions smoother and more human-like. And he is already on to the next generation of humanoid creations. 'I am considering a couple of projects next, one of which would be Repliee as a model of myself that will have a full body mechanism and be able to walk,' he said. 'It would be possible to use this robot as a 'remote existence', so I could control it from here and send it as a copy of myself to my other laboratory for meetings or lectures - a far stronger presence than speaking on the telephone or even on a TV screen.'