by Michael Fitzpatrick
Chillingly life-like robots are causing a storm in Japan – where their creators are about to launch them as actresses, full-size mechanical copies for pop idol fans, and clones of the dearly departed.
Android Asuna was a star attraction at Tokyo Designers’ Week showcase earlier this month and she is one of a series of geminoids, as their inventor dubs them, that are ripe for commercialisation say their creator robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro.
Gobsmacked men attending the show told MailOnline that she was well made, very convincing and had a nice voice. One man joked that Asuna would make ‘a good date; a cheap date!’
From others, covering their mouths in astonishment at Asuna’s realistic skin and facial expressions, the frequent response from the public was ‘sukoi’ which translates as ‘amazing’ in English.
Asuna is so convincing that many bowed respectfully before requesting politely to take her photo or join a selfie.
Unable, for now, to use some of the advanced artificial intelligence (AI), face and voice recognition systems that some Japanese robots coming on the market now use, Asuna relies on a camera rigged behind her that is relayed to a remote human controller to give her life.
This so-called tele-presence enables Asuna to come alive, taking on the operator’s personality.
A fully independent version of the geminoid is expected in 10 years using all the above technologies to make her virtually indistinguishable from humans says Mr. Takeshi Mita, CEO of A-Lab in Tokyo, the company working with Prof. Ishiguro to make Asuna and her kind commercial.
‘We already have 20 year’s experience making androids in the lab. So in 10 years we will marry AI and life like geminoids in perfection,’ he told MailOnline.
‘We had been focusing on perfecting her skin, facial expressions, and so on, so for now Asuna is really just a head. Now we are working on her arms and torso to give very natural, fluid body language.’
Everything about Asuna’s appearance has been painstakingly honed to make her more life-like.
From the superior quality of her silicon skin to the secret animatronic muscles that move her eyes and drive her facial expressions.
Previous attempts by Ishiguro’s team had been dismissed as unconvincing and prone to what is known as the ‘Uncanny Valley syndrome’.
This is a term coined by another Japanese professor of robotics, Masahiro Mori. It describes the response of revulsion and creepiness when faced with something that looks almost, but somehow not quite, human.
As robots become as dexterous as Asuna at mimicking humanity, so the theory goes, the syndrome will erase itself.
Already Asuna and other androids from A-lab have had a taste of the limelight, appearing on stage and voicing actors lines using tele-presence.
Asuna’s next performance will be in an opera to prove her credentials as a singer. An Ishiguro geminoid is also appearing on stage in Paris now.
‘One application we have is to turn her into an international pop idol,’ says Mr. Mita.
Already Japan is in thrall to virtual idols such as Hatsune Miku, who is basically a hologram that ‘sings’ words and music created for her on a computer using ‘vocaloid’ technology.
Her tunes often outsell those sung by her flesh and blood musical rivals in Japan.
A-lab also hopes to tap into another big business in Japan – the popularity of fantasy figurines that appeal to Japan’s legions of nerdy men or ‘otaku’.
Most such dolls are just a few centimetres high and often represent an idol or a manga character often scantily clad.
As A-lab is working with highly respected Prof. Ishiguro, Mr. Mita says the company has ruled out producing androids that might be used for sex.
But a spokesman working with Ishiguro’s lab says it is not a great leap of imagination to think similar robots, given the advancement in robotics and silicone skin technology, will be used for sex.
‘Physical relations will be possible in general with such androids,’ said Takahashi Komiyama.
Lady Gaga was so impressed with their quality that she asked the Japanese firm to make dolls in her own image.
‘It is not inconceivable,’ said an Orient Industries spokesman, ‘that we will be making android life partners in the near future.’
David Levy, author of Love and Sex With Robots predicts that as robots become more sophisticated, growing numbers of adventurous humans will enter into intimate relationships with these intelligent robots.
Speaking at the First International Conference on Human-Robot Personal Relationships, held last week, he says that AI will progress to the point where human-robot dating will be commonplace.
‘Being loved by a robot?’ Levy says. ‘It sounds a bit weird, but someday, for many, many people, being in love with a robot will be just as good as love with a human.
‘Real-life loved ones can also be reproduced faithfully by cloning them to comfort the bereaved’, Mr Mita pointed out.
Androids can now also take on a variety of human jobs such as receptionist and even news readers.
To prove the point two fem-bots from Ishiguro’s stable have been working in those posts since June this year at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
The more mature ‘Otonaroid’ greets guests to the museum, making terrifying life-like eye contact as she converses while hooked to a tele-presence system that the public can also play with.
‘Kodomodroid’ (child android) is viewable at the museum through an art like installation in an all white room where she sits without rest all day lip-synching the day’s news perfectly from an AI source.
They are joined by the most compelling/repelling android of them all who incidentally happens to be the most popular among the Ishiguro droids on show.
The thoroughly unnerving baby-like Telenoid, sports a simplistic mannequin head with stunted arms and legs that also speaks by proxy from a control box maned by museum visitors.
Confronted with the rather formal reception-droid, Japanese housewife Koari IIda says she couldn’t decide if Otanaroid was human or not.
‘If you have talk to her getting closer is a good idea, so she seems more natural and less creepy close up,’ she said. ‘But it’s great fun robo-chatting.’
Asked if she would like Otanaroid at home as a baby sitter if mum was out. Rika replied: ‘No, Mum is my robot!’