​Ishiguro and his Geminoid. Image: ​Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Osaka University

The Man Building Robots to Better Understand Humans

Emiko Jozuka

Emiko Jozuka

"We’re not so serious about the differences between humans and robots.”

​Ishiguro and his Geminoid. Image: ​Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Osaka University

​Imagine a scene in the future, when you've replaced your flesh-and-blood lover or friend with an automated counterpart. Could there come a day when robots become so "humanlike" that we won't think twice before entering into a relationship with them, or even distinguish them as different from ourselves? Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leading roboticist in Japan and a minor celebrity in his own right, thinks so.

"The Japanese have quite loose definitions of what it is to be human. In the West, more emphasis is placed on 'self-hood' and distinguishing yourself from others. I'd guess that people would be more seriously inclined to define what human is [in the West]," Ishiguro told me over Skype. "But we don't do that in Japan. That's why we're creating more human-like robots, because we're not so serious about the differences between humans and robots."

Ishiguro, who is the director of the Intelligent Robotics L​aboratory at Osaka University, has spent the better part of his life designing and bringing to life a series of photorealistic androids. They bear a striking resemblance to their human models. For instance, there's Gem​inoid HI-2 modelled on Ishiguro himself; Gemino​id F modelled on a Japanese woman; and an earlier prototype of his android series is even based on his own daughter.

"I try to understand humans by creating lifelike robots."

Major robotics labs the world over have focused on making robots that look little like their human creators, preferring functionality over form. But why has Ishiguro chosen to whip up a set of robots in our image? It comes down, he says, to how we define humans and notions of personhood.

"Japan is an isolated island, and we have our own culture," said Ishiguro, who referenced the ancient religion Shinto as an example. "[In Shinto], we don't distinguish between humans and things. We believe that everything has a soul. I believe for example that computers, chairs and desks, rocks and trees have a kind of soul."

This belief system influences perceptions so that inanimate objects like the Geminoid androids become imbued with a sense of soul. And as humans are more likely to empathise and ​relate with creations that look like them, Ishiguro argued, why not make robots that closely resemble us?

"For some tasks, we can use a mechanical robot, but if you want to replace a human shopkeeper with a robot, people will want to have humanlike robots," explained Ishiguro. The goal, however, isn't just to create realistic robots, but to understand all the constituent parts that make up a human.

"The question always revolves around what a human is. I try to understand humans by creating lifelike robots," said Ishiguro, who also places his creations in contexts where they will interact with human beings. In 2010, fembot Geminoid F took to the stage and performed alongside real-life actors in the play Sayon​ara, directed by Oriza Hirata. But following the performance, actors were quick to point out the staleness of the interaction, stating that while the robot had a vo​ice, it lacked "presence."

An actor acting with a Geminoid in Sayonara. Image: ​Ars Electronica/Flickr

Ishiguro isn't exactly sure what it is that makes us human, and what imbues us with "presence." His life's work, he said, is dedicated to finding that out—even though he remarked that he probably wouldn't find the answer in this lifetime.​

For thousands of years, humans have been hackin​g their bodies by testing out and incorporating emerging technologies into their lives. Ishiguro argued that we will keep replacing our body parts with machines, and extending our abilities with technology. Yet he suggested that our relentless pursuit to overcome the physical limitations of our bodies stems from our desire to find that elusive and unknown "last part that makes us human."

In a bid to fast-forward his quest, Ishiguro told me that his teleoperated androids are set for a major upgrade, thanks to a $16 million five-year fund that he's just received from Japanese science and technology grant giving body ER​ATO.

"We'll stop caring about the body itself, but not the definition of a human​."

Currently, Ishiguro's teleoperated Ge​minoid H1-2 possesses tactile sensors and 50 degrees of movement, which allow it to mimic human movements such as blinking and fidgeting. But with the new funding, Ishiguro intends to work on an upgraded "brain architecture," which could also pave the way for more intimate and interactive human-robot interactions.

"My next big project is to give intention and desire to robots, as if a robot can be equipped with this, it will be able to understand other people's intentions and desires. We can also apply our kind of deep learning algorithms to provide a robot with a much better interface, which would allow it to distinguish a person's speech and face. It's the beginning of better AI technologies," he said.

Ishiguro and his Geminoid. Image: Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Osaka University

Ishiguro's robotic hardwire might be set for a new installment, but the professor is not one to let the surface details slip. He aims to improve the silicone currently used for the robot's skin so that it's softer and more capable of reflecting the textures of human skin, or creasing to the degree where facial expressions look even more genuine. The upgrade is also set to incorporate better actuators, motors, and artificial muscle that would simulate real human muscle movements.

Ishiguro noted that while physical bodies wouldn't completely disappear, in the future, they would lose meaning. "The definition of what it means to be 'human' will just keep evolving, and we'll stop caring about the body itself, but not the definition of a human," he said, but remarked that the Singularity-style age of uploading our minds on computers was still a while away.

With films such as Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda's Kuki Ning​yo [Air Doll] (2009) exploring the phenomenon of doll-man love affairs, and the notion of dolls imbued with a soul, the idea of human-robo relations in the future seems pretty feasible.

I asked if it could be detrimental to Japan's increasingly silver population. "It's not dangerous, it's healthy," chuckled Ishiguro. "Humans have already accepted artificial ways to have babies, so love and sex is not natural anymore. We're always extending our abilities and overcoming the limitations stemming from our physical bodies by accepting new technologies—that's human evolution."

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along he​re.