What does it mean to be human? That’s the question being asked in a thought-provoking new exhibition of stunningly lifelike androids, which also suggests that maybe the singularity could be closer than we think.
On June 25, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, more commonly known as the Miraikan, will open an exhibition of humanoid robots entitled ‘Androids: What makes us human?’
The exhibition is headed by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Systems Innovation in the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University. Ishiguro is a researcher at the cutting edge of robotics technology, and is famous for creating robots that look just like humans, including the Geminoid, an android modeled after himself.
▼ The real Ishiguro is on the left. Just kidding.
Professor Ishiguro’s research is driven by the question of what it means to be human, and by studying human behaviour and reactions in order to create an android that mimics them perfectly, he believes we can learn much about the human condition and consciousness.
This newest exhibition, which will become a permanent installation, features three different androids that each seek to provoke a different set of responses and questions in visitors.
The Kodomoroid is a remote-controlled android in the form of a human child, and its name comes from ‘android’ and ‘kodomo‘, the Japanese word for child. It looks just like a little girl, but functions as an announcer, relaying information and news on the weather and situations on earth and in space. She is designed to make a statement about the lack of knowledge many of our children have about the world today, and make the listeners think more profoundly about our futures on this planet.
This name comes from a portmanteau of ‘android’ and ‘otona‘, meaning adult. Visitors will be able to try conversing with and operating this android, which is the spitting image of a real, adult human woman. Her function is to give people the experience of socializing with a robot face-to-face.
The Telenoid is an interactive android built to answer the question: ‘What are the minimum characteristics necessary for something to be considered human?’
Its neutral shape and features do not resemble any particular person, so it can take on the characteristics of any partner the viewer chooses; male or female, old or young. It’s small, and the shape and texture are designed to make it pleasant to hold and even hug, but its makers seem to neglect to mention the fact that it’s also incredibly creepy to look at. However, since it’s clearly not going to be mistaken for an actual human being, the robot probably doesn’t make it into the ‘uncanny valley’.
Another Japanese professor of robotics, Masahiro Mori, originally coined the term ‘uncanny valley’ to describe the response of revulsion among human observers when faced with something that looks almost, but somehow not quite, human. The theory goes that as a robot starts to look more human, actual humans will become more sympathetic towards it, until it reaches a certain point where it looks almost, but not exactly, like a human being, at which point real humans will reject it because of the feeling of the uncomfortable feeling it evokes.
At the same time as Ishiguro’s robots are getting closer and closer to pulling out of the uncanny valley and becoming indistinguishable from real humans, research into artificial intelligence is also progressing rapidly, and before we know it we might find that today’s far-fetched sci-fi stories have become tomorrow’s reality. The technological singularity is a hypothetical moment when artificial intelligence surpasses that of human beings, and many experts predict that it will occur during our lifetime. So perhaps it’s time to get yourself down to Odaiba to start trying to gain an understanding of our potential future overlords. You might just discover something about yourself, too.
▼ Will the real Ishiguro please stand up?
Check out this link: