What exactly do humanoid robots do and to what purpose will they be put in the future? Some expert answers from Dr Hiroshi Ishiguro, a roboticist and professor at Osaka University in Japan.

Can humanoid robots help us to understand people?

Robots are now appearing everywhere. At schools they will soon be used to test how much children have learned and to help hospitalised children participate in lessons. In hospitals, they are already helping elderly people and autistic children. Other robots are tasked to deliver items to your door and move goods around in warehouses.

Some of these robots are replacing human workers on certain tasks and some actually look like human beings. Yet if we go along with the Uncanny Valley theory popularised by Masahiro Mori – a Japanese roboticist noted for his pioneering work on the emotional response of humans to non-human entities – we may well ask why these machines are being made to look so much like humans when people often find such traits disturbing.

Meanwhile another Japanese roboticist, Dr Hiroshi Ishiguro, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, is also researching in the field of robot-human relations. L’Atelier met up with him in March at the Japan Factory – a three-day event held within the main South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference in Austin, Texas. Asked why he designs his robots with a human appearance, Ishiguro explained: “Our aim is to understand what a human being is and how a human being acts. Humanoid robots are used in psychology and the behavioural sciences.” Teaching a robot to converse like a person – as Dr Ishiguro’s robots do – requires researchers to think about language mannerisms, the role played by facial expressions, about all the ready-made formulae we use to interact with other people, such as ‘That’s right, but’, ‘Maybe so, but’, etc., and at the way we bring a third person into the discussion. Working with these robots is therefore very useful for such research.

“We can also find practical applications for these human-like robots”, underlined the Osaka University professor, listing a whole range of jobs that his creations could perform, including the hotel receptionist who must always have a welcoming manner, and the television news presenter who would be able to work longer hours and later into the night if s/he were a robot, plus jobs such as weather presenter, English teacher and museum guide. What all these jobs have in common is the fact that those who do them have a public-facing role where appearance counts. “These robots can be given a huge range of skills. Today we’ve demonstrated how they can lead a discussion. We’re not talking simply about chatbots like at last year’s conference, this is a level higher,” he pointed out.

Dr Ishiguro nevertheless acknowledged: “We still need to further develop the robot’s computer programme and improve its voice recognition functions. For the moment, what we’re doing with the programmers is to give the robot knowledge that it can use in conversations and discussions.” So in fact two of these robots can hold a discussion on Japanese food and compare the ramen to the sushi, but they can also compare the East Coast of the United States to the West Coast and make you feel that they are listening to one other and reacting to each other’s arguments. This represents real progress, even though the conversation is still not completely fluent.

When you ask Ishiguro if robots will indeed be able to take over most jobs from people, as some reports would have us believe, he does not miss a beat: “Yes, of course. And this is all part of our history – machines have for some time been replacing Man on certain tasks.” The Professor is not a very talkative person but he has no hesitation in expressing his conviction that “one day the frontiers between human beings and robots will disappear.” And he is helping to bring that day nearer with his own robots, which are increasingly coming to resemble their creators.

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist