Guest blog post: Interview with robotics expert Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro (Magazine Hi, Robot! Das Mensch Maschine Festival)

Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro (li) mit seinem Roboter-Zwilling Geminoid HI-1. Foto: Hiroshi Ishiguro

The man who made a copy of himself. Hiroshi Ishiguro builds androids in order to better understand humans

Alter 3, the android, is at the centre of the festival’s opening event “Scary Beauty”, an update expressly flown in to Düsseldorf. Alter 3 was created by Japan’s celebrity robotics expert, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at the Department of Adaptive Machine Systems of Osaka University. We get an inkling why he builds androids by means of his dialogue with Choy Ka Fai, media artist and Factory Artist at tanzhaus nrw.

As the leading robotics expert, you have built many robots and androids. What did the process of creating robots teach you about human beings or human culture?
Actually, it taught me many things. A robot is a testing field for understanding the interaction with human beings. This is not so easy. Therefore, we start with very basic human functions, meaning, for example, functions such as eye or head movement. The question is, what reactions can be invoked in an interlocutor by means of a certain eye movement? What kind of impression can we produce? The human appearance and its modalities are all imbued with certain meanings, and we are investigating those complex intertwining mechanisms one after the other. A next step, then, is the implementation of intentions and desire into the android. We are checking the options to reach that kind of consciousness. This is just a try-out, as we do not know exactly what constitutes consciousness! This kind of research will provide us with an understanding of mental and cognitive functions and how their outcome will be perceived.
I remember that, many years ago, you conducted an experiment using an android replica of yourself to interact with your own children. What were the reactions, and was your daughter able to distinguish the real human father from his android alter ego?
Of course she saw the difference! She was seven or eight years old already and in elementary school. She is used to seeing my robots, so she did not have any problem. However, with a younger child, we saw different results. The younger child was a little bit nervous at first, but grew familiar with the robots quickly. These reactions depend on the composition of the interaction with the android. After a five-minute phase, the children were able to interact with the robot in a lot of ways. Children adapt quickly.
You are able to build replica androids of real people from data gathered on the behaviour and character of humans. In a technological sense, we can live forever. What are your thoughts on the presence of a human mind in different shells? Can we really transcend our physical self?
Well, the consciousness, the human mind is something very special. By creating the android for a famous person, the famous person can survive and reach some kind of immortality in society. But the consciousness is a totally different thing, and if it inhabits a different body, it won’t be the same. It is not continuous. If I create my own android, this android will have an independent consciousness.
In 2010, the android Geminoid-F performed in the theatre piece “Sayonara” alongside human beings. What is new about Alter 3, the update of the android you created for the opera “Scary Beauty”?
This is a different concept. For “Sayonara”, I created a very human-like robot. That was quite successful, and the audience was able to experience this creation so akin to a human by seeing the performance. Alter 3 proposed a challenge instead. It has a minimal design, but the movement is humanoid, although the appearance is not very anthropomorphic. It has a mechanical look. But the movement and the talking and singing – a kind of sound – is humanoid. The audience fosters an imagination about the emotions, about humanity, just by watching Alter 3. My hypothesis is that even though the robot has a mechanical look, the robot can still be humanoid. If we aim to control the robot and its very complex neuronal system and at the same time synchronise it with the orchestra, we’re investigating, we are verifying this hypothesis.
How does Alter 3 learn during the production process of the opera “Scary Beauty”? Is there evidence of a learning process for the machine?
Well, no learning process. Actually, Alter 3 hears the music and perceives the changes in the musicians’ body movements. It is the combination of a very complex neuronal network and sensors, but it may not be appropriate to call this a learning process. Actually, it is reacting to the music and generating its own body movements according to the pace of the music. The orchestra, human beings, are playing the music on their instruments, and Alter 3 hears that. Conversely, the musicians are also watching the movements of Alter 3. It is a kind of interaction. But I’m not sure whether this is a learning process or not. I guess it is not, to be precise.
Having created robots and androids, do you yourself believe in God or any kind of spiritual leader?

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