What Happens When Robots Act Just Like Humans

What Happens When Robots Act Just Like Humans

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Three years later, in 2005, Ishiguro unveils Repliee Q1 Expo to the public. Modeled on a grown woman (a popular Tokyo newscaster) and produced with better funding, this version can move its upper body fluidly and lip-synch to recorded speech. Ishi­guro’s lab conducts several studies with it; the results are featured in a major Japanese robotics journal; the lab is filmed for television; he hears about a copycat android in South Korea. As a growing audience is drawn to Ishiguro’s simulated human, his instincts are validated.

But he now wants something more. Twice he has witnessed others have the opportunity, however confusing, to encounter their robot self, and he covets that experience. Besides, his daughter was too young, and the newscaster, though an adult, was, in his words, merely an “ordinary” person: Neither was able to analyze their android encounter like a trained scientist. A true researcher should have his own double. Flashing back to his previous life as a painter, Ishi­guro thinks: This will be another form of self-portrait. He gives the project his initials: Geminoid HI. His mechanical twin.

Ishi­guro has hundreds of photos of the Geminoid’s assembly. Here is his assistant wrapping the facsimile of his then-43-year-old face around the machine head and zipping it up the back, its bald scalp studded with sensors. Here is the Geminoid seated upright, a padded vest in place of its torso, its mechanical biceps visible, its arms only “flesh” below the elbows, as if it were wearing elegant gloves. The hands have veins and sunspots and the faint wrinkles that gather around the wrists; the nails have cuticles, pale and precise. Here it is dressed, in a fitted black shirt identical to Ishi­guro’s. His assistant raises its arms, one by one, to tug down the sleeves, as if dressing a complicated child.

It also wears fitted black slacks, like Ishi­guro’s, and black sneakers stuffed with prosthetic feet in matching socks; a black wig, styled like the hair of its maker, is fastened onto the android’s scalp with snaps. Here is the machine that pumps air into its chest—a series of cables runs from its tailbone into a metal box—as the professor’s double sits at attention and speaks for the first time.

This android is a step forward, but it still falls well short of verisimilitude. Its hands, at rest on its lap, are rubbery to the touch; its eyes have a surprising intensity, not unlike Ishi­guro’s, but they are clearly made of a hard, bright plastic. Lean in close and you can hear the soft hum of a hidden motor; a gentle click is audible each time it blinks. At times, its overall effect, and that of its sisters, is of a human-sized puppet—like the animatronics in a Disney World display. But the Geminoid is also unsettling. Because, somehow, all these elements work in concert to simulate a sympathetic interaction with a human. The viewer cannot help but assign an entire range of emotions to its face: melancholic (mouth downturned), upset (eyes squinted shut), skeptical (a sideways glance), pensive (the tilt of its head to the left). When its eyes meet yours, motion sensors detecting your position, just for a moment you feel that it—this “he,” this “Ishi­guro”—is aware of you.

“Android has my identity,” Ishiguro says. “I need to be identical with my android, otherwise I’m going to lose my identity.”

This replica, Geminoid HI, brings Ishi­guro the recognition he has longed for. Using his double, he and his team publish dozens of studies, analyzing the participants’ range of reactions to him and his doppelgänger. (The studies involve operating the android remotely and wirelessly: tele­operation.) Side by side, he and his Geminoid make appearances on TV shows across Asia and Europe. Ishi­guro also begins giving lectures around the world without leaving his lab in Osaka, teleoperating and speaking through the android, which is carefully transported abroad by an assistant. (Its legs and torso are checked with the luggage; its head is carry-on.) Ishi­guro-sensei becomes a source of fascination; he is transformed from a researcher to the man who made his copy. Invitations for conferences and festivals stream in.

The success of this particular android is due, in part, to how it seems to operate on several levels. It is, like its predecessors, a circus trick: Look at the human, look at his copy! Try to tell them apart! It is also Ishi­guro’s bid at solving an existential dilemma—a striking attempt by the maker to master himself, to make of himself something more enduring.

At the same time, it has created a new predicament. Ishi­guro has discovered unexpected consequences of living alongside his own replica. He’s been dressing in black since his grad-school years, and now this has become both his and the HI’s official uniform; he was thrilled to realize this clearer vision of himself. But now he must keep his (naturally shifting, aging) human body corralled within the android’s static limits. He finds himself accommodating his android, measuring himself against it, being defined by it, his worth determined by it. In this way, his android makes him both painfully conscious of his aging body and more physically confident than he’s ever been.

Ishi­guro is multiple myths simultaneously. With his female androids, he is Pygmalion, bringing his Galatea to life. But with his own replica, he is Narcissus, staring into his reflection for hours. Unlike Narcissus, of course, Ishi­guro is conscious of the situation he has created, but he’s set an unexpected trap for himself through his image. He poses beside his android, in press photos and TV appearances, in ways that accommodate the Geminoid, setting his face to mirror its expression. (At one point at the research institute, Ishi­guro notices me photographing him in front of his android and reflexively drops his smile to match the robot at rest.)

Soon his students begin comparing him to the Geminoid—“Oh, professor, you are getting old,” they tease—and Ishi­guro finds little humor in it. A few years later, at 46, he has another cast of his face made, to reflect his aging, producing a second version of HI. But to repeat this process every few years would be costly and hard on his vanity. Instead, Ishi­guro embraces the logi­cal alternative: to alter his human form to match that of his copy. He opts for a range of cosmetic procedures—laser treatments and the injection of his own blood cells into his face. He also begins watching his diet and lifting weights; he loses about 20 pounds. “I decided not to get old anymore,” says Ishi­guro, whose English is excellent but syntactically imperfect. “Always I am getting younger.”

Remaining twinned with his creation has become a compulsion. “Android has my identity,” he says. “I need to be identical with my android, otherwise I’m going to lose my identity.” I think back to another photo of his first double’s construction: Its robot skull, exposed, is a sickly yellow plastic shell with openings for glassy teeth and eyeballs. When I ask what he was thinking as he watched this replica of his own head being assembled, Ishi­guro says, perhaps only half-joking, “I thought I might have this kind of skull if I removed my face.”

Now he points at me. “Why are you coming here? Because I have created my copy. The work is important; android is important. But you are not interested in myself.”

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