This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Star Wars

Android Science

Hiroshi Ishiguro makes perhaps the most humanlike robots around--not particularly to serve as societal helpers but to tell us something about ourselves

At the 2005 World Exposition in Japan's Aichi prefecture, robots from laboratories throughout the country were on display. The humanoids came in all shapes and sizes: they moved on wheels, walked on two legs, looked like lovable little dolls or fantastic mechanical warriors. All, however, were instantly recognizable as artificial creations. Except one: it had moist lips, glossy hair and vivid eyes that blinked slowly. Seated on a stool with hands folded primly on its lap, it wore a bright pink blazer and gray slacks. For a mesmerizing few seconds from several meters away, Repliee Q1expo was virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary woman in her 30s. In fact, it was a copy of one.

To many people, Repliee is more than a humanoid robot--it is an honest-to-goodness android, so lifelike that it seems like a real person. Japan boasts the most advanced humanoid robots in the world, represented by Honda's Asimo and other bipedal machines. They are expected to eventually pitch in as the workforce shrinks amid the dwindling and aging population. But why build a robot with pigmented silicone skin, smooth gestures and even makeup? To Repliee's creator, Hiroshi Ishiguro, the answer is simple: "Android science."

Director of Osaka University's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Ishiguro has a high furrowed brow beneath a shock of inky hair and riveting eyes that seem on the verge of emitting laser beams. Besides the justification for making robots anthropomorphic and bipedal so they can work in human environments with architectural features such as stairs, Ishiguro believes that people respond better to very humanlike robots. Androids can thus elicit the most natural communication. "Appearance is very important to have better interpersonal relationships with a robot," says the 42-year-old Ishiguro. "Robots are information media, especially humanoid robots. Their main role in our future is to interact naturally with people."

Although Ishiguro grew up as a typical robot-mod¿el-¿building Japanese boy near Kyoto, he was more keen on philosophical questions about life than on inventing robots. Mild colorblindness forced him to abandon his aspirations of a career as an oil painter, and he was drawn to computer and robot vision instead. He built a guide robot for the blind as an undergraduate at the University of Yamanashi, and elements of his later humanoid Robovie went into the design of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries's new household communications robot, Wakamaru. A fan of the android character Data from the Star Trek franchise, he sees robots as the ideal vehicle to understand more about ourselves.

To emulate human looks and behavior successfully, Ishi¿guro yokes robotics with cognitive science. In turn, cognitive science research can use the robot as a test bed to study human perception, communication and other faculties. This novel cross-fertilization is what Ishiguro describes as android science. In a 2005 paper, he and his collaborators explained it thus: "To make the android humanlike, we must investigate human activity from the standpoint of [cognitive science, behavioral science and neuroscience], and to evaluate human activity, we need to implement processes that support it in the android."

One key strategy in Ishiguro's approach is to model robots on real people. He began research four years ago with his then four-year-old daughter, casting a rudimentary android from her body, but its few actuator mechanisms resulted in jerky, unnatural motion. With Tokyo-based robotics maker Kokoro Company, Ishiguro built Repliee also by "copying" a real person--NHK TV newscaster Ayako Fujii--with shape-memory silicone rubber and plaster molds. Polyurethane and a five-millimeter-thick silicone skin, soft and specially colored, cover a metal skeleton. Given clothing, a wig and lipstick, it is a near mirror image of Fujii.

Appearance, though, is only part of human likeness. To achieve smooth upper-body movement in Repliee, Ishiguro equipped it with 42 small, quiet air servo-actuators. Because a fridge-size external air compressor powers the actuators, locomotion was sacrificed. Similarly, Ishiguro off-loaded most of the android's control elements and sensors. Floor sensors track human movement, video cameras detect faces and gestures, and microphones pick up speech. The result is a surprisingly good. "I was developed for the purpose of research into natural human-robot communication," Repliee says in velvety prerecorded Japanese, raising its arm in instantaneous response to a touch picked up by its piezoelectric skin sensors.

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