When Yangyang, a tall, brown-haired woman clad in a chic red coat, took to the stage at this year’s Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing, she was met with critical acclaim. But, despite how she might look, Yangyang is no human. “She” is, in fact, an “it”: an eerily human-like android robot, and the latest creation of Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro.
Ishiguro, who is the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, is well-known for his android series, which look like perfect replicas of their human counterparts.
Over Skype, Ishiguro told me that Yangyang is a replica of researcher Yang Song, the wife of the president of tech company Shanghai Shenqing Industry and professor of Sanlian College in China. Ishiguro collaborated with the company to make Yangyang as a present for the company’s research and development department. The android, which can blink, shake hands, and fidget like a human, has so far been warmly received in China, according to Ishiguro. “Everyone said that our presentation was the best,” he told me with a hint of glee in his voice.
With Yangyang, Ishiguro has put his foot squarely in the Chinese market. But for Song’s company, the android is not just a pretty face. The robot, Ishiguro told me, will have some serious applications. Shenqing Industry are planning on using Yangyang in an educational way to teach young kids about robotics. She stands for all things non-profit. “This robot will be a symbol of that,” stated Ishiguro. Of course, he added that the robot could also be used in commercial settings, as “greeter” in department stores or museums.
Yangyang. Image: Shanghai Shenqing Industry
For Ishiguro, there’s always a deeper idea than surface looks behind his doppelganger bots. “The most important concept is to extend someone’s life. If we have an android, we can extend our experience and do several things simultaneously,” said Ishiguro, who noted that with an android, one could experience having multiple lives. “Mrs Yang Song could be a singer with this, for example,” said Ishiguro. One of his earlier “Geminoid” robot models is known for her singing. He admitted, however, that this was probably a luxury concept more for the well-off in life.
Ishiguro’s just been awarded $16 million by Japan’s Science and Technology grant-giving body ERATO to take his robots to the next level, in which he hopes to instil them with the notion of “intention and desire”. With all this already under his belt, the professor has his sights set on China.
The Chinese tech and innovation sector is heading in a different direction to the US or Japanese, said Ishiguro, who said he’d spotted a niche he could fill. “The Chinese market is more active than the United States and Japan. They’re eager to accept new technology,” he enthused. The tech and innovation sector is booming in China, he said, with the affluent classes keen to jump onto the latest trends.
“I wanted to take the initiative in China. A lot of robotics companies are focusing on the Chinese market now as they are more flexible and richer than the Japanese one,” he said.
Incidentally, the Mail Online recently likened Yangyang’s looks to American politician Sarah Palin. What does Ishiguro think about that? “Should I know her?” he responded politely.