The Future is Here: First Android Newscasters in Japan

japan-android-robotsThis past week, Japanese scientists unveiled what they claim is the world’s first news-reading android. The adolescent-looking “Kodomoroid” – an amalgamation of the Japanese word “kodomo” (child) and “android”- and “Otonaroid” (“otona” meaning adult) introduced themselves at an exhibit entitled Android: What is a Human?, which is being presented at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan).

The androids were flanked by robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro and Miraikan director Mamoru Mori. After Kodomoroid delivered news of an earthquake and an FBI raid to amazed reporters in Tokyo. She even poked fun at her creator, leading robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, “You’re starting to look like a robot!” This was followed by Otonaroid fluffing her lines when asked to introduced herself, which was followed by her excusing herself by saying, “I’m a little bit nervous.”

geminoidBoth androids will be working at Miraikan and interacting with visitors, as part of Ishiguro’s studies into human reactions to the machines. Ishiguro is well-known for his work with “geminoid”, robots that bare a frightening resemblance to their creator. As part of his lecture process, Ishiguro takes his geminoid with him when he travels and even let’s it deliver his lectures for him. During an interview with AFP, he explained the reasoning behind this latest exhibit:

This will give us important feedback as we explore the question of what is human. We want robots to become increasingly clever. We will have more and more robots in our lives in the future… This will give us important feedback as we explore the question of what is human. We want robots to become increasingly clever.

Granted the unveiling did have its share of bugs. For her part, Otonaroid looked as if she could use some rewiring before beginning her new role as the museum’s science communicator, her lips out of sync and her neck movements symptomatic of a bad night’s sleep. But Ishiguro insisted both would prove invaluable to his continued research as museum visitors get to have conversations with the ‘droids and operate them as extensions of their own body.

pepperAnd this is just one of many forays into a world where the line between robots and humans are becoming blurred. After a successful debut earlier this month, a chatty humanoid called Pepper is set to go on sale as a household companion in Japan starting next year. Designed by SoftBank, using technology acquired from French robotics company Aldebaran, and marketed as a household companion, each robot will cost around $2,000, the same cost of a laptop.

Pepper can communicate through emotion, speech or body language and it’s equipped with both mics and proximity sensors. Inside, it will be possible to install apps and upgrade the unit’s functionality, the plan being to make Pepper far smarter than when you first bought it. It already understands 4,500 Japanese words, but perhaps more impressively, Pepper can apparently read into the tone used to understand its master’s disposition.

pepperAldebaran CEO Bruno Maisonnier claims that robots that can recognize human emotion will change the way we live and communicate. And this is certainly a big step towards getting robots into our daily lives, at least if you live in Japan (the only place Pepper will be available for the time being). He also believes this is the start of a “robotic revolution” where robotic household companions that can understand and interact with their human owners will become the norm.

Hmm, a world where robots are increasingly indistinguishable from humans, can do human jobs, and are capable of understanding and mimicking our emotions. Oh, and they live in our houses too? Yeah, I’m just going to ignore the warning bells going off in my head now! And in the meantime, be sure to check out these videos of Kodomoroid and Otonaroid and Pepper being unveiled for the first time:

World’s First Android Newscasters:

Aldebaran’s Pepper:


Judgement Day Update: Geminoid Robotic Clones

geminoidWe all know it’s coming: the day when machines would be indistinguishable from human beings. And with a robot that is capable of imitating human body language and facial expressions, it seems we are that much closer to realizing it. It’s known as the Geminoid HI-2, a robotic clone of its maker, famed Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro.

Ishiguro unveiled his latest creation at this year’s Global Future 2045 conference, an annual get-together for all sorts of cybernetics enthusiasts, life extension researchers, and singularity proponents. As one of the world’s top experts on human-mimicking robots, Ishiguro wants his creations to be as close to human as possible.

avatar_imageAlas, this has been difficult, since human beings tend to fidget and experience involuntary tics and movements. But that’s precisely what his latest bot excels at. Though it still requires a remote controller, the Ishiguro clone has all his idiosyncrasies hard-wired into his frame, and can even give you dirty looks.

geminoidfThis is not the first robot Ishiguro has built, as his female androids Repliee Q1Expo and Geminoid F will attest. But above all, Ishiguro loves to make robotic versions of himself, since one of his chief aims with robotics is to make human proxies. As he said during his talk, “Thanks to my android, when I have two meetings I can be in two places simultaneously.” I honestly think he was only half-joking!

During the presentation, Ishiguro’s robotic clone was on stage with him, where it realistically fidgeted as he pontificated and joked with the audience. The Geminoid was controlled from off-stage, where an unseen technician guided it, and fidgeted, yawned, and made annoyed facial expressions. At the end of the talk, Ishiguro’s clone suddenly jumped to life and told a joke that startled the crowd.

geminoid_uncanny_valleyIn Ishiguro’s eyes, robotic clones can outperform humans at basic human behaviors thanks to modern engineering. And though they are not yet to the point where the term “android” can be applied, he believes it is only a matter of time before they can rival and surpass the real thing. Roboticists and futurists refer to this as the “uncanny valley” – that strange, off-putting feeling people get when robots begin to increasingly resemble humans. If said valley was a physical place, I think we can all agree that Ishiguro would be its damn mayor!

And judging by these latest creations, the time when robots are indistinguishable from humans may be coming sooner than we think. As you can see from the photos, there seems to be very little difference in appearance between his robots and their human counterparts. And those who viewed them live have attested to them being surprisingly life-like. And once they are able to control themselves and have an artificial neural net that can rival a human one in terms of complexity, we can expect them to mimic many of our other idiosyncrasies as well.

As usual, there are those who will respond to this news with anticipation and those who respond with trepidation. Where do you fall? Maybe these videos from the conference of Ishiguro’s inventions in action will help you make up your mind:

Ishiguro Clone:

Geminoid F: