Exploring the Human Side of Robots at Japan Society

Robots took to the stage at Japan Society on Thursday with the first of three performances by Seinendan Theater Company + Osaka University Robot Theater Project. Oriza Hirata, playwright, theater director, and founder of Seinendan, presented two one-act plays in which humans acted alongside robots that were developed by Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leading international researcher on robotics and the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University.

Robot Theater Project, Oriza Hirata, Seinendan Theater Company, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Japan Society, NYC, robots, androids, emotions
Geminoid F and Bryerly Long in "Sayonara." Photo ©Tatsuo Nambu

In the first play, Sayonara, a terminally ill girl (Bryerly Long) has a humanoid robot (Geminoid F with the voice of Minako Inoue) that was purchased for her by her father. The android looks just like a human being with arms, legs, hair, and facial features. She recites poetry, much of it haiku and tanka, because “I still have some of the memory of my previous client,” an elderly Japanese woman.

The girl eventually dies, and the android malfunctions, repeating lines of poetry over and over. A human worker (Hiroshi Ota) reboots the android and sends her to Fukushima, “a place where there are no humans” so that she can “recite poetry to no one.”

Sayonara explores the concepts of life and death as they pertain to humans and robots. By malfunctioning, did the android become sick in the same way as the girl? Is the android capable of dying?

In the second play, I, Worker, the robot actors are two shiny and cute Robovie R3s that look like more traditional robots. Although presented in a more upbeat tone than Sayonara, the theme of I, Worker also examines how a robot can react with human emotion.

Yuji (Hiroshi Ota) and Ikue (Minako Inoue) are a couple who employs two robots, Takeo and Momoko, as servants. The couple is coping with the loss of a child and the Yuji is unable to work as a result. Meanwhile, the robot Takeo is also suffering from general malaise and has lost motivation to perform his duties. They try to help cheer each other up, but can a robot have the emotional capacity to cheer up and be cheered up? And how can he have a lack of desire to work when he is expressly programmed to work? Humans are also supposed to work, so what happens to the psyche when the physical or emotional ability to work goes away?

Robot Theater Project, Oriza Hirata, Seinendan Theater Company, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Japan Society, NYC, robots, androids, emotions
Hiroshi Ota and Minako Inoue with Momoko, a Robovie R3 robot, in Oriza Hirata's "I, Worker." Photo ©Julie Lemberger

Overheard in the audience:
“Oh my god, that’s so creepy!”
In reaction to Geminoid F’s appearance in Sayonara.

“The actress playing the robot [in Sayonara] was really good.”
That woman must not have read the program. Or maybe Geminoid F was truly convincing as a human. Either way, that statement should please Hirata and Dr. Ishiguro.

“It reminded me of watching The Jetsons during my childhood.”
In reaction to the appearance of Takeo and Momoko in I, Worker.

“[I, Worker] was like watching two remote-controlled cars. And they paused too long before delivering their lines.”
Okay, so not everyone loved I, Worker simply because the robots are cute.

Still, giving Geminoid F and Robovie R3 robots central roles in plays adds a new dimension to theater. In a lecture at Japan Society earlier in the week, Dr. Ishiguro says Robot Theater Project developed simple programs for the script and direction. Of course, the robots aren’t really acting. Robots “act” in a similar manner as a microwave heats our food using the parameters we input. But Dr. Ishiguro hinted that it’s easier to direct robots rather than humans in stage plays. “There are no rehearsals and no mistakes, no complaints,” he says.

The development of robots in the theater will continue. Says Dr. Ishigruo, “One day the robot will be more human, and the theater will be more flexible, and we’ll have more interactive robots.”