Electronic Design

Will Androids Become A Part Of Our Everyday Lives? Japanese Scientists Are Betting On It

Would an android replica of your child, spouse, or even yourself bother you in any way? It wouldn’t if you were Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University professor in the Department of Adaptive Machine Systems (www.ams.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp/home_eng.htm). He is one of the many professors and professionals in Japan building androids that, at first glance, are indistinguishable from the humans they resemble. These androids also have human-like characteristics, including soft silicon-based skin; facial movements, such as blinking eyes; and the ability to react to various stimuli, such as touch.

Dr. Ishiguro has a vision that androids in the near future will be able to assist the elderly and be their companions. Androids also could be quite useful as guides for folks in subways and museums, as well as in other situations. While there are some social and moral implications to consider, Dr. Ishiguro and his colleagues first need to tackle some practical issues.

The two challenges android scientists are facing today lay in determining how to improve, and even perfect, interpersonal and social relationships between androids and humans. Dr. Ishiguro and his colleagues have arguably created the most human-looking androids. However, their behaviors and minute intricate facial gestures, as well as other body movements, still need improvement. Dr. Ishiguro also is attempting to better understand the human brain and apply cognitive science to his robots’ programmed behaviors.

The social challenges involve the android computing things we take for granted in everyday settings. For example, if two young women are walking next to each other and chatting, we assume they are probably friends. If two people are holding hands, we assume they are either close friends or in a relationship. Yet what is the android to conclude if a short mother and her tall son are walking together and holding hands? As humans, we would likely be able to surmise the relationship. But for androids, this could be a challenging task. In another example, clearing our throats in a certain way may indicate discomfort or the need for attention. How is an android to determine when we are just clearing our throats and when there may be some other meaning?

Perhaps the most interesting challenge is a robotic phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley, theorized by Masahiro Mori in 1970. As the human appearance and motion of an android improve, a human’s emotional response to the android tends to become more positive. This positive emotional response increases until the human-like appearance and motions become eerie because they just don’t seem quite right. The human then quickly becomes strongly repulsed until the android’s appearance and motion are indistinguishable from those of a human. After this transition, humans may empathize with androids as if they were also human.

For instance, if an android can blink its eyelids, humans may be repulsed if the blinking rate is too fast or slow or isn’t smooth. Yet if the blinking pattern matches that of the average human, we empathize with the android. Not surprisingly, children are the first to pick up on and be repulsed by non-human-like motions and appearance. Dr. Ishiguro feels as if his androids are currently near the bottom of the Uncanny Valley, but his research efforts are nudging them toward acceptance.

Scientists like Dr. Ishiguro must continue to invent new concepts to overcome the social challenges facing androids. One fascinating idea helping androids differentiate large groups of humans is the use of RFID tags. In one experiment, noisy kids were given individual RFID tags, and the android had no problems identifying them.

Dr. Ishiguro asked me how people in the U.S. would react to lifelike androids and if we would readily accept them into our homes. I am curious to know if morals would come into play and if the U.S. would be slower to accept androids as a part of everyday life. How do you feel androids can help? Where would they have a negative impact on our lives? How long will we be satisfied with our robotic floor vacuums before we exchange them for progressively more humanlike robots? If you have an opinion on any of these questions, e-mail me at [email protected]. Feel free to send responses from friends and family members too.

One last note of interest: Dr. Ishiguro certainly isn’t alone in his research efforts. Of the 80 “World’s Greatest Android Projects” (www.androidworld.com/prod01.htm), 37 are based in Japan, while the U.S. has nine entries. The Japanese certainly appear more culturally ready to accept androids into their everyday lives. What do you think?

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