Real Androids Are Here, Proving We Humans Are Creepy!
The Geminoid F Android
Troubling Glimpses of Ourselves
Humanity is taking its first baby steps in creating artificial humans and lifelike robots. I'm disturbed by them, but not for the reasons raised in science fiction morality plays like Star Trek and Terminator and Wall-E.
I'm not afraid of robots rebelling against human overlords and killing us. Having grown up with appealing robots like C-3PO and Mr. Data, I'm more concerned about the ethics of slavery or of having a race of second-class citizens, should we create self-aware artificial intelligence and not respect their autonomy.
I've been worried about androids being used as weapons, too. "Weapons" not just in the sense of machines that can fight and hurt people, but as tools used to psychologically manipulate or intimidate us.
Now that I've had my first look at extremely lifelike robots, I'm seeing another problem. When human inventors set out to create artificial people, they can't help but express assumptions, feelings and unconscious attitudes towards fellow human beings. Sometimes these self-expressions are disquieting.
Also, when I view androids, I discover unconscious prejudices, biases, and hangups in myself!
When watching these android videos, consider your own emotional (gut) responses to them. You may find, as I did, that your reactions reveal something about yourself.
Android Jules Ponders Being a "Real Person" (Skip to 3:05)
Geminoid HI-1 By Hiroshi Ishiguro
Geminoid F Speaking With Twin
Geminoid F Android Behind Glass
Geminoid DK by Henrik Scharfe
Geminoid F 'Actroid" in a Play
Geminoids: Synthetic Twins
"Geminoid" androids by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro at Osaka University are designed to mimic the appearance and movements of a test subject as closely as possible. There is no SIRI-like artificial intelligence here; these are simply experiments in simulating a realistic-looking human appearance, including movements.
Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro is a philosopher. Time magazine quotes him as saying, “What is a human? Please define, and we will make a copy.” He has not tried to create androids with an idealized physique, nor is he creating them with a particular use in mind. He simply tries to fashion lifelike androids, then watches to see how we will react to and use them. (His daughter didn't like her twin, and it's now deactivated in a closet.)
Ishiguro's "twin" android is a dispassionate, unflattering self-portrait, complete with a mole on his face. I find that reassuring. This inventor is not making a fantasy self, a fantasy friend, a sexual fantasy, or a slave. He's just exploring human nature through experimentation, holding up a mirror of ourselves and challenging us to look carefully, in the best Star Trek tradition.
Finding My Own Prejudices
My first reaction to Ishiguro's android twin was one of strong revulsion, perhaps influenced by interviewer James May's interview (video, above right). Geminoid HI looks too human for something that isn't thinking. Its restless body language unnerves me: it seems like living, animate tissue struggling aimlessly without a mind.
As soon as one of these androids starts speaking, singing or responding to external cues, I instinctively relax. It's as if my unconscious thinks, oh good, it's alive after all. I feel like it has a spirit, although not a soul. Then I experience a different form of discomfort: when Geminoid F is displayed behind glass, I start feeling twitchy about how she is trapped: both literally and as an object for our viewing pleasure. This is irrational, but it's useful to know one's irrational, gut-responses to physical appearances, when not tempered by the person behind the face.
Viewing something I identify as externally but not internally human, I confront some of my unconscious prejudices about appearance. Are my more positive reactions to androgynous Jules, Geminoid-F and Geminoid-F's androgynous "brother" a sign that I'm partial to female faces and less trusting of male? Or is my sense of revulsion towards Geminoid-HI an unconscious prejudice against features I find unattractive? Or are these hints of latent racial prejudice, since I'm slightly less repulsed by Danish professor Henrik Scharfe's Geminoid, and I enjoy Jules' vaguely British accent? Or am I simply disturbed by the total absence of facial expressions in Geminoid HI, which seems "dead" because it's not animated with simulated emotions like Jules?
Pronouns are a strong hint of biases, and I'm keenly aware of my inconsistent use of them. I react to Geminoid-F as an android person— she or zie— whereas I think of HI, DK and all the other androids here as mechanical copies of a person— he or it. I react to Jules as he, despite the androgynous features, swayed by his male voice and clothes.
These are signs of my own unconscious prejudices and assumptions. Examine your gut reactions to these androids: can you discover yours?
Revealing Human Psychology
If you look at these videos on YouTube, you'll be disturbed (I hope) at some of the comments posted there. They express powerful human prejudices and psychological hangups. Many are abusive and sexual, expressing sex as power-over-others or as a way to minimize the viewer's discomfort by mocking someone else's sexuality (jokes about the inventor having sex with his invention). Others express fears of Terminator-like scenarios with robots taking over or harming humans.
As an aside: why is it so difficult to discover the name of the woman who is the model for Geminoid-F? I've hunted and hunted, and I can't find any mention of her in news about Ishiguro's work. It's like Greek myths of Athena sprung fully from the mind of Zeus, after he swallowed Metis!
And why is it that Geminoid-F has been tested as a department store mannikin, mall display, hospital bedside companion, and actor playing an android caregiver, while Geminoid-HI has been tested as a university professor and computer user working quietly in a hallway (right)? What does that say about the Geminoid team's assumptions about gender roles?
Jules Says Goodbye
Jules on Sexuality
Imitating Human Emotions
Jules, designed by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of West England, built by HansonRobotics, does not focus so much on mimicking human appearance, but in imitating human facial expressions and emotions.
"He" — despite using a face calculated to be race and gender neutral, Jules has a male voice and is dressed in male clothes — does not simply have a complex database and intelligent searching system like Apple SIRI. Jules goes one step further: he learns.
A cynic may suspect these videos are staged: perhaps a human operator is offstage like Geminoid F's operator during the play, or perhaps his speeches are pre-recorded. However, I'm convinced Jules' declarations are actual responses to live input. I used to play around with simple artificial intelligence programs like Animals, Basho, Eliza, jabberwocky and A.L.I.C.E. Even those much more primitive programs produced intelligent-sounding insights and unexpected remarks like Jules'.
Jules learned what to talk about and how to talk from his development team. He expresses and mirrors their psychology. For them, an android is not a toy or model or prospective commercial product or servant, but a friend and a child. Jules' and their expressions of love are almost unsettling, exaggerated in the same way as the body language of the Geminoids. Again, the psychology of the creator expresses itself in the android creation.
Android HRP-4C, Fashion Model
Android HRP-4C Dancing
HRP-4C: Bishoujo Android
Android HRP-4C by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology is based on the "average figure of a young Japanese female." So far, she has been deployed as a fashion runway model, dancer and cosplayer.
Despite her supposedly human proportions, I can't help noticing her anime eyes, exaggeratedly cute features and extremely thin legs. Again, are those my own prejudices showing (is she, in fact, a typical Japanese female body type?), or are we witnessing the dawn of a new era when robots, like Barbie two generations ago, will serve as impossible body image models for girls?
More disturbingly, HRP-4C is designed with a prepubescent girl's features and proportions, and some of her promotional photos and poses seem to emphasize her sex appeal. Sexually fetishizing children and young girls is a problem in western cultures as well, buit it's made a name for itself in Japan: Bishoujo. I'm disappointed but unsurprised to see androids following the trend.
On the other hand, as soon as I see her in a human context — dancing or engaged in the eminently Japanese cultural experience of cosplay, I wonder if I'm being hypercritical. Is it wrong to make an android look attractive, appealing, and unthreatening?
I don't know, but I have to admire the exuberance and chutzpah of a culture that struts a robot wearing a bridal gown along a fashion runway to the music of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" ("the kid is not my son.") The more I think about it, the more the ironies of the situation make my head spin.
Aiko (Name means "Girl")
Pygmalion and Galatea
Warning: the video at right may be triggering for survivors of physical or sexual abuse.
This android is Aiko, built as a labor of love by Japanese-Canadian inventor Le Trung. He calls it a Yumecom, a "Dream Computer Robot," and it does seem to be partly an expression of the inventor's fantasies.
Like Jules, Aiko has sophisticated artificial intelligence software, helping the inventor's grandmother around the home and answering questions in a SIRI-like fashion.
It's also programmed to respond to physical pain. The technology may be used for amputees to create artificial limbs that let them know if, for example, they're resting a hand on a radiator that could melt the plastic.
I am unsure why Aiko is programmed to respond to unwanted sexual advances. My initial reaction to this video was, "Yuck, what kind of sick person would program his robot for sexual abuse?" On the other hand, to judge by many of the comments and responses I've seen to the robots pictured in these videos, perhaps the inventor is simply responding to the likelihood that people will act that way around robots. Already, the Japanese sex toy industry is working on robotic, full-sized dolls.
The Aiko project's website seems to express a number of assumptions about women as passive objects for viewing: "where science meets beauty," "Aiko is the only female that I’ve known that gains weight every month, but her figure stays the same!" The inventor chose the name Aiko, "beloved one," to remind him of a friend he lost when he was eight years old. Is this creepy, or is it no different from artists who bravely expose their inner selves, their fears and loves and aesthetic preferences, through art and writing and sculpture?
His idea is that androids are threatening, so we should make them beautiful and reassuring in ways that help us connect with them. I can't help but see Le Trung and Aiko as a modern-day Pygmalion and Galatea, due to my own tendency to interpret through the lens of western mythology.
The "Uncanny Valley"
After more research, I've learned that there's already a term for the unease I'm feeling: the "uncanny valley."
Coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, this poetic phrase describes the fact that humans relate fairly well to "cute" (i.e. nonhuman) robots like R2-D2, Wall-E, and the Mars Curiosity Rover, but start to feel uneasy towards androids that look fairly human, but not human enough. (This also tends to be true for computer animation.) However, if androids really are just like people (Mr. Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Tron), then we accept them, coming out of the valley.
When Mori wrote his paper describing the "uncanny valley," it was theoretical. Now we're diving into it. But it's not working out quite as Mori's thought experiment predicted. See this fascinating article on research into the "uncanny valley" showing that there may be gender differences in how we respond to humanlike robots, plus more commentary from Hansen Robotics.
Phillip K. Dick Android
Touch Motion Technology
DER2 By Kokoro
Yet More Androids
Here's a few more android robots.
The Phillip K. Dick robot is a tribute to an extremely influential science fiction author who explored questions about "what is human?" through his stories about androids, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Later adapted into the seminal movie Blade Runner). The android is having a little trouble hearing in this video, which demonstrates how he has been preprogrammed (I think) to hunt for key phrases and respond to them with canned statements. (See remarks from Phillip K. Dick Trust about this robot.)
I can't track down the touch motion android at right, but I like her naturalism. She looks like a real person, even if her movements are stiff. Again, I'm struck by the way we express ideas of dominance/subservience, positioning and treating the android in a passive way as if to reassure ourselves that we are still in charge. ("Nan desu ka" = "What is it?")
Kokoro's DER-2 isn't that different from HRP-4C, yet I like her: she's been given anime features that I'm conditioned to find appealling. The humanizing touches like her sweatshirt help. What does it say about us that we'd dress up a robot in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit? This "Actroid" is one of a number of animatronics created by the commercial company Kokoro for rental as a novelty or performer. I'm intrigued that DER-2 was dressed in traditional Japanese kimono but given a disconcertingly American voice when she toured at the Kennedy Center in DC, where she answered passersby's questions. I guess both were meant to fulfill viewer expectations.
Android design is common in Japan, where people are extremely comfortable with technology. They're already accepting less human-realistic robots into households. Androids like Jules are a little less common in the rest of the world, although there are more of them than you might think.
All these androids look slightly artificial, like early CGI computer graphics. Their skin and eyes are fantastic, but their movements are still a little fake. That said, take a look at this last video. Is it a human or robot? It's amazing that technology has reached a stage where it's hard to tell at first (or even second) glance.
Training Japanese Robot to Simulate Eating
For Further Reading
Well, how about that. Here's a book exploring the psychological aspects of android creation. English professor Eric G. Wilson focuses on a strand I instinctively felt when viewing the Geminoid F robot behind glass: a sense of melancholy at the not-quite-aliveness of "her." But this book is of course much more in-depth, thoughtful, well researched and complex than my off-the-cuff babblings.