Humanlike robots run the risk of compromising people's comfort zones. Says Ishiguro collaborator Takashi Minato: "Because the android's appearance is very similar to that of a human, any subtle differences in motion and responses will make it seem strange." The negative emotional reaction is known as the "uncanny valley," first described in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Repliee, though, is so lifelike that it has overcome the creepiness factor, partly because of the natural way it moves.
One of Ishiguro's android-science experiments demonstrates the importance of movement. He had subjects identify the color of a cloth behind a curtain after it had been pulled back for two seconds. Unknown to participants, Repliee was also behind the curtain, either motionless or exhibiting prelearned "micro movements" that people unconsciously make. When the android was static, 70 percent of the subjects realized that they had seen a robot. But when Repliee moved slightly, only 30 percent realized it was an android.
In a land where Sony Aibo robot dogs are treated like family, it is not surprising that the engineering students who work on Repliee daily have developed a special protectiveness for it. Gaze-direction experiments suggest that nonengineers can unconsciously accept androids on a social level, too. In these studies, subjects pausing to consider a thought looked away during conversations with both people and Repliee, leading Ishiguro and his associates to consider that the breaking of eye contact can be a measure of an android's human likeness. They see this as key to eliminating psychological barriers to robots playing everyday roles in society. (Less sophisticated androids are already at work in Japan: Saya, a robot with fewer sensors and limited movement that was developed by Hiroshi Kobayashi of Tokyo University of Science, has been a receptionist in the university's lobby for years.)
"An android is a kind of ultimate experimental apparatus and test bed," states Ishiguro collaborator Karl MacDorman, who has been examining possible links between the uncanny valley and fear of death. "We need more of them." Although Ishiguro's automatons may even evolve to bipedalism, perhaps ironically, he is sure that androids will never be able to pass for human. There will be no need, say, for the elaborate Blade Runner-type "empathy tests." "Two seconds or 10 seconds of confusion is possible, but a whole day is not," Ishi¿guro remarks. "It's impossible to have the perfect android."
Still, he wants his next android, a male, to be as authentic as possible. The model? Himself. Ishiguro thinks having a robot clone could ease his busy schedule: he could dispatch it to classes and meetings and then teleconference through it. "My question has always been, Why are we living, and what is human?" he says. An Ishiguro made of circuitry and silicone might soon be answering his own questions.
This article was originally published with the title Android Science.