Japan’s Robot Revolution

“Who doesn’t like robots?” asks Erico Guizzo, MIT graduate, Senior Associate Editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine, and moderator of How to Create Your Own Humanoid: Robot Science Made in Japan, a lecture about robotics at Japan Society.

While the audience didn’t literally learn how to create a robot, we did learn how robot technology is changing in Japan through a lecture by Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, Professor of Department of Systems Innovation in the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University and Group Leader of Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute.

I like robots as much as the next person, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect at a lecture about them. I imagined a boring talk by a dry academic who uses confusing scientific terminology. Instead, Dr. Ishiguro turned out to be engaging, comfortable with the crowd, and, at times, very funny. (I felt a wee bit prejudiced for thinking a scientist was incapable of having a sense of humor.)

Hiroshi Ishiguro, robots, humanoids, androids, Japan Society, NYC, Heather Knight, Erico Guizzo, Asimo


Dr. Ishiguro explained that in Japan, the study of robotics is not simply for creating industrial robots anymore. In Dr. Ishiguro’s eyes, gone are the days of Asimo, Honda’s world-famous robot, which he accused of looking too much like an astronaut. Dr. Ishiguro would rather have a robot with a more human likeness and more human functionality.

Robotics has shifted to the development of androids, or humanlike robots, which will give us insight into humans, as Dr. Ishiguro believes we don’t understand ourselves well enough. Creating androids is an interdisciplinary practice involving experts in cognitive science and neuroscience for functionality, as well as psychologists who understand human emotion and behavior.

“Once we replace the human with the android, we can understand the human,” says Dr. Ishiguro.

Wait. Replace the human?

Dr. Ishiguro built an android in the likeness of Beicho Katsura III, a famous rakugo artist (traditional Japanese storyteller) and Living National Treasure in Japan. In doing so, Dr. Ishiguro says he is keeping Katsura’s performances alive for younger generations to enjoy, a process that is “must better than digital technology.” Now Katsura, who is in his mid-80s, “is ready to die,” quipped Dr. Ishiguro.

Hiroshi Ishiguro, robots, humanoids, androids, Japan Society, NYC, Heather Knight, Erico Guizzo, Asimo

Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro and his android. Photo ©Makoto Ishida

Dr. Ishiguro also created an android in his own likeness. During a busy stretch last year, Dr. Ishiguro double-booked himself on lectures and told one conference organizer that he would have to choose between Dr. Ishiguro and his android. The organizer chose the android.

What Dr. Ishiguro didn’t explain is how he facilitated his android’s talk while he was in a different country. The android might be programmed to give a speech, but can he participate in a Q&A session? If the PowerPoint presentation failed, would the android even know?

Dr. Ishiguro also sent his android to sit in a café to keep people company. Although his android was the one sitting at the table, Dr. Ishiguro himself was conducting the conversation through speakerphone. Wouldn’t Skype be much less expensive?

Joining Dr. Ishiguro and Guizzo in the post-lecture conversation and Q&A was Heather Knight, founder of the Robot Film Festival and Cyborg Cabaret. She is currently conducting her doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, and she runs Marilyn Monrobot Labs in NYC, which creates socially intelligent robot performances and sensor-based electronic art.

Special guest Geminoid was also onstage, and she recited a poem to kick off the conversation. Her mouth moved a little, her head tilted a little, and her eyes blinked a little, but she offered nothing else to the discussion and sat with perfect posture for the rest of the event.

“Japan has a great tradition of building and loving robots, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up,” says Guizzo. “But, where are the robots?”

Dr. Ishiguro and Knight both respond by saying that there are robots in our everyday lives, depending on your definition. They say we’re surrounded by robotic forms such as Roomba vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, which I typically consider “appliances.” Dr. Ishiguro mentions again that if an android could give a lecture, then android technology can be good for handicapped people. He also says robots could be our romantic partners in the near future. Ewww.

Knight and Dr. Ishiguro are both experimenting with using robots on stage. Knight is testing robots in comedic situations, programming them to tell jokes to audiences and analyze their reactions, adjusting the topics based on good or bad feedback.

“Using the stage as a new test environment is a fun and exciting idea,” says Knight. “Often as researchers we would bring people into the lab to do studies and try to get statistical analyses . . . If you could make something as entertaining as a performance, you wouldn’t need to offer free ice cream or gift certificates in exchange for half an hour of your time.”

Hiroshi Ishiguro, robots, humanoids, androids, Japan Society, NYC, Heather Knight, Erico Guizzo, Asimo

"Sayonara" ©Tatsuo Nambu

Audiences will have a chance to see the fruits of Dr. Ishiguro’s collaboration with playwright and theater director Oriza Hirata on February 7, 8, and 9, when Japan Society and the Japan Foundation present two one-act plays, Sayonara and I, Worker, which star Dr. Ishiguro’s robots and humanoids alongside human actors.

Overall, it’s fascinating research, but as one audience member remarked to me after the talk, “The robot is only as good as its programmer.”

I’m not convinced that androids will take the place of humans, as Dr. Ishiguro suggests. I don’t think a department store will replace its information desk staff with androids for the price of $100,000 per robot. Humans’ salaries at that position aren’t nearly that high. Besides, I’ll take Asimo serving me tea over a creepy looking android any day. I wonder if androids are actually necessary to replace humans so that we can study humanity.

Knight admits, “We’re engineers, so sometimes we’re anti-social, which is why we try to make social creatures.”

Dr. Ishiguro proved Knight’s point to me at the post-talk reception. As I approached Dr. Ishiguro and handed him my business card, he grabbed the card without looking at it, and before I finished my sentence, he said, “Thank you very much,” and walked away. No doubt Dr. Ishiguro’s android would have politely explained that he didn’t have time to talk – had he been programmed to do so, of course.