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Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories is making robots with our perfect imperfections

By Sofia Gallarate

Oct 22, 2018


When it comes to humanoid robotics, none have quite lived up to Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ most advanced—and iconic—invention. The female bot, equipped with a skin-like facade, makeup and even teeth, excels when it comes to expressing her business inclination with natural-born leadership skills. To date “She has met face-to-face with key decision makers in banking, insurance, auto manufacturing, property development, media, and entertainment”, as written in her description on the Hanson Robotics’ website. Her creepy mechanic soul, delayed facial expressions and her contrived sense of humour have been engineered to make Sophia a highly sought after employee as opposed to an empathic, human-like robot. In other words, she means business.

While Hanson Robotics is developing humanoids whose goal is to be more efficient in a competitive work environment, other labs are focusing on more empathic, albeit less hyperbolic bots than Sophia. The Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories for instance has been on a more poetic (or creepy, depending on the angle) mission to develop robots that could reproduce what Ishiguro calls the human presence, which is the subtle facial and body movements that make a human, human.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, roboticist and director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka, Japan, is developing the tools to integrate robotic technologies with the human presence by making robots that could interact with humans without freaking us out (sorry Sophia, that is how you make us feel when you joke about conquering the world and destroying the human race). “We explore not just how people conversing with the robot are affected, but also how the robot’s operator is affected.” Writes Hiroshi Ishiguro. By developing “Geminoids” such as the newly launched Ibuki, an android built to resemble a 10-year-old child, alongside teleoperation systems, the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories is applying methods from engineering, cognitive science and neuroscience to investigate and hone in on the relationship between humans and robots on a social and emotional level. By creating a child android and imitating the malleability of a young mind and body, Ishiguro expects that a robot that can play, move and consequently share the human experience will—over time—become a conversational robot able to construct a deeper relationship with the human.

Robots developed at the Ishiguro Labs are built to ultimately live symbiotically with humans and that is why the focus of Ishiguro’s research is on body language. Arguably, Ishiguro’s investigation into robotics is more experimental and slow paced and its twist lies on the premise that Ishiguro builds robots in order to understand humans and not the other way around. “My research question is to know what is a human,” he once said in an interview with Spectrum, “I use very human-like robots as test beds for my hypotheses.” With his investigation and often speculative approach, Ishiguro’s aim is not to build robots that are better than Sophia, as his probe goes far beyond the production of androids whose sole raison d’etre is to increase human productivity. His dream is to replicate humans themselves, with all their perfect imperfections, and that includes much more than a fake smile and a couple of cringy jokes.