It's not every day you receive an invite to a Japanese robotics lab's bōnenkai, or "forget-the-year" drinking party, a celebration where you literally wash away the past year's troubles with booze. So I was chuffed when I was asked to attend one hosted by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro in Osaka.
Earlier this year, he received a $16 million grant from ERATO, the Japanese science and technology funding body, to work on a five-year project to instil a sense of "desire"and "intention" in his robots. I took the opportunity of the year-end festivities to catch up on how it was going.
"The aim is to give desire and intention to robots so that they can talk naturally with you, without needing a human to be controlling them remotely from another room," Shogo Nishiguchi, a master's student researching theatrical androids, told me as we stepped inside a room housing two of Ishiguro's well-known humanoids: Geminoid F (modelled on a half-Japanese, half-Russian woman) and Geminoid H1-2 (based on Ishiguro himself).
So far, Ishiguro's androids have been deployed as hotel and department store receptionists, teaching aids, and actors in theatre and film productions in Japan. Some, like the white Telenoid and bug-eyed Commu robot, have even been used in therapy contexts to explore how elderly people or people with autism react to them.
But when the robots are used in social settings, a human in another room has to act like a puppet master to operate them. A pair of gyroscope-equipped headphones in the control room sync up to an android in Ishiguro's lab, and when a human moves his or her head, the robot moves accordingly. A speech recognition system also makes it appear as though the robot is speaking when its human operator talks into a microphone in the control room.
The new ERATO-funded project aims to release the androids from their human puppet masters and give them a sense of autonomous existence and, to some degree, "consciousness." Nishiguchi, who joined the project earlier this year, said that he was helping write some of the code for the newest edition to Ishiguro's android family: ERICA, a fembot similar in style to Geminoid F.
"At the moment, you need a human to control Geminoid F or Geminoid H1-2 remotely," he said. "You won't need to do that with ERICA." The idea is for ERICA to remember conversations it's had with a human it interacts with and pick up from where they left off the next time they converse. It will, said Nishiguchi, be in possession of a "memory" of sorts.
ERICA wasn't present in Ishiguro's lab when I visited. A glitch had caused this year's prize robot's eyelid to detach from its eyeball. Nishiguchi said that ERICA had been shipped to Tokyo the previous day to have some minor surgery—a 300,000 yen ($25o0) procedure to stick the severed components back together again with a special glue.
Despite their photorealism in pictures, up close you can tell that both Geminoid F and Geminoid H1-2 are robotic. There's something about their creaky, staccato gestures that gives away their programmed regularity. I stepped in front of Geminoid F and felt her look past me as she smiled and blinked into the abyss.
Nonetheless, they are a hit among some in Japan. Nishiguchi said that when Geminoid F was deployed as a sales assistant in a department store, it managed to garner higher sales than its human counterpart.
"Sometimes you might think that a human sales assistant has an ulterior motive to sell you something, but when a robot recommends you a colour, you know they don't have the same intentions as a human might," said Nishiguchi, admitting he'd probably trust a robot more in a sales context.
As my tour of Ishiguro's lab ended, Nishiguchi shut down the Geminoids and we rushed to the izakaya (pub) where the bōnenkai was being held. In real life, Ishiguro, clad all in black, looks like a cross between a rock star and one of his own Geminoids. As we washed down the past year's sorrow, I asked Ishiguro how happy he was about his past year of robotic achievements. With a new android that has greater freedom of movement in the pipeline, and his project with ERICA just getting started, Ishiguro said that, despite ERICA's recent cosmetic blip, he was pretty satisfied.
"Once we implement intention and desire to the android, it can understand people better. If we can share intention, that means we love each other, so we want to have that kind of robot," he said.
Bigger androids like ERICA and the Geminoid series aren't set for commercial release just yet. For the immediate future, Ishiguro predicted the rise of smaller personal robots that might take the place of a personal computer—a bit like pocket-sized RoboHon, the mobile phone and "friend" rolled into a miniature robot casing.
"In the future, we're just going to have another choice," explained Ishiguro. "We'll keep speaking with humans, but also have the option of speaking with robots. They'll be like our friends."
I asked Ishiguro if this was something to worry about, given Japan's ageing population and decreasing birth rate.
"We're going to lose the population. Therefore we'll need to have more robots," said Ishiguro. "Robots will be Japanese."
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.