What about the heart? and the quest to make androids lifelike

Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro has been mentioned here several times in the context of ‘lifelike’ robots. Accordingly, it’s no surprise to see Ishiguro’s name in a June 24, 2014 news item about uncannily lifelike robotic tour guides in a Tokyo museum (CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News online),

The new robot guides at a Tokyo museum look so eerily human and speak so smoothly they almost outdo people — almost.

Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University professor, says they will be useful for research on how people interact with robots and on what differentiates the person from the machine.

“Making androids is about exploring what it means to be human,” he told reporters Tuesday [June 23, 2014], “examining the question of what is emotion, what is awareness, what is thinking.”

In a demonstration, the remote-controlled machines moved their pink lips in time to a voice-over, twitched their eyebrows, blinked and swayed their heads from side to side. They stay seated but can move their hands.

Ishiguro and his robots were also mentioned in a May 29, 2014 article by Carey Dunne for Fast Company. The article concerned a photographic project of Luisa Whitton’s.

In her series “What About the Heart?,” British photographer Luisa Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry--androids. Here, an eerily lifelike face made for a robot. [dowloaded from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3031125/exposure/japans-uncanny-quest-to-humanize-robots?partner=rss]

In her series “What About the Heart?,” British photographer Luisa Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. Here, an eerily lifelike face made for a robot. [dowloaded from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3031125/exposure/japans-uncanny-quest-to-humanize-robots?partner=rss]

From Dunne’s May 29, 2014 article (Note: Links have been removed),

We’re one step closer to a robot takeover. At least, that’s one interpretation of “What About the Heart?” a new series by British photographer Luisa Whitton. In 17 photos, Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. These are the result of a growing group of scientists trying to make robots look like living, breathing people. Their efforts pose a question that’s becoming more relevant as Siri and her robot friends evolve: what does it mean to be human as technology progresses?

Whitton spent several months in Japan working with Hiroshi Ishiguro, a scientist who has constructed a robotic copy of himself. Ishiguro’s research focused on whether his robotic double could somehow possess his “Sonzai-Kan,” a Japanese term that translates to the “presence” or “spirit” of a person. It’s work that blurs the line between technology, philosophy, psychology, and art, using real-world studies to examine existential issues once reserved for speculation by the likes of Philip K. Dick or Sigmund Freud. And if this sounds like a sequel to Blade Runner, it gets weirder: after Ishiguro aged, he had plastic surgery so that his face still matched that of his younger, mechanical doppelganger.

I profiled Ishiguro’s robots (then called Geminoids) in a March 10, 2011 posting which featured a Danish philosopher, Henrik Scharfe, who’d commissioned a Geminoid identical to himself for research purposes. He doesn’t seem to have published any papers about his experience but there is this interview of Scharfe and his Geminoid twin by Aldith Hunkar (she’s very good) at a 2011 TEDxAmsterdam,

Mary King’s 2007 research project notes a contrast, Robots and AI in Japan and The West and provides an excellent primer (Note: A link has been removed),

The Japanese scientific approach and expectations of robots and AI are far more down to earth than those of their Western counterparts. Certainly, future predictions made by Japanese scientists are far less confrontational or sci-fi-like. In an interview via email, Canadian technology journalist Tim N. Hornyak described the Japanese attitude towards robots as being “that of the craftsman, not the philosopher” and cited this as the reason for “so many rosy imaginings of a future Japan in which robots are a part of people’s everyday lives.”

Hornyak, who is author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots,” acknowledges that apocalyptic visions do appear in manga and anime, but emphasizes that such forecasts do not exist in government circles or within Japanese companies. Hornyak also added that while AI has for many years taken a back seat to robot development in Japan, this situation is now changing. Honda, for example, is working on giving better brains to Asimo, which is already the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. Japan is also already legislating early versions of Asimov’s laws by introducing design requirements for next-generation mobile robots.

It does seem there might be more interest in the philosophical issues in Japan these days or possibly it’s a reflection of Ishiguro’s own current concerns (from Dunne’s May 29, 2014 article),

The project’s title derives from a discussion with Ishiguro about what it means to be human. “The definition of human will be more complicated,” Ishiguro said.

Dunne reproduces a portion of Whitton’s statement describing her purpose for these photographs,

Through Ishiguro, Whitton got in touch with a number of other scientists working on androids. “In the photographs, I am trying to subvert the traditional formula of portraiture and allure the audience into a debate on the boundaries that determine the dichotomy of the human/not human,” she writes in her artist statement. “The photographs become documents of objects that sit between scientific tool and horrid simulacrum.”

I’m not sure what she means by “horrid simulacrum” but she seems to be touching on the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’. Here’s a description I provided in a May 31, 2013 posting about animator Chris Landreth and his explorations of that valley within the context of his animated film, Subconscious Password,,

Landreth also discusses the ‘uncanny valley’ and how he deliberately cast his film into that valley. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the ‘uncanny valley’ I wrote about it in a Mar. 10, 2011 posting concerning Geminoid robots,

It seems that researchers believe that the ‘uncanny valley’ doesn’t necessarily have to exist forever and at some point, people will accept humanoid robots without hesitation. In the meantime, here’s a diagram of the ‘uncanny valley’,

From the article on Android Science by Masahiro Mori (translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato)

Here’s what Mori (the person who coined the term) had to say about the ‘uncanny valley’ (from Android Science),

Recently there are many industrial robots, and as we know the robots do not have a face or legs, and just rotate or extend or contract their arms, and they bear no resemblance to human beings. Certainly the policy for designing these kinds of robots is based on functionality. From this standpoint, the robots must perform functions similar to those of human factory workers, but their appearance is not evaluated. If we plot these industrial robots on a graph of familiarity versus appearance, they lie near the origin (see Figure 1 [above]). So they bear little resemblance to a human being, and in general people do not find them to be familiar. But if the designer of a toy robot puts importance on a robot’s appearance rather than its function, the robot will have a somewhat humanlike appearance with a face, two arms, two legs, and a torso. This design lets children enjoy a sense of familiarity with the humanoid toy. So the toy robot is approaching the top of the first peak.

Of course, human beings themselves lie at the final goal of robotics, which is why we make an effort to build humanlike robots. For example, a robot’s arms may be composed of a metal cylinder with many bolts, but to achieve a more humanlike appearance, we paint over the metal in skin tones. These cosmetic efforts cause a resultant increase in our sense of the robot’s familiarity. Some readers may have felt sympathy for handicapped people they have seen who attach a prosthetic arm or leg to replace a missing limb. But recently prosthetic hands have improved greatly, and we cannot distinguish them from real hands at a glance. Some prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny. In mathematical terms, strangeness can be represented by negative familiarity, so the prosthetic hand is at the bottom of the valley. So in this case, the appearance is quite human like, but the familiarity is negative. This is the uncanny valley.

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It seems that Mori is suggesting that as the differences between the original and the simulacrum become fewer and fewer, the ‘uncanny valley’ will disappear. It’s possible but I suspect before that day occurs those of us who were brought up in a world without synthetic humans (androids) may experience an intensification of the feelings aroused by an encounter with the uncanny valley even as it disappears. For those who’d like a preview, check out Luisa Whitton’s What About The Heart? project.

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