A video of a dental training robot went viral on Twitter yesterday. As malfunctioning mechanized silicone anatomy often is, seeing it in action is frankly horrifying.
It gnaws at the air and thrashes its neck, its eyes flitting in their sockets and eyelids twitching out of sync. It's like some artificial proto-consciousness is struggling its way out at last. It's probably how I look in the dentist's chair when they get that plaque drill out.
Once the uncanny valley horror of seeing the thing in motion waned, I had questions—most pressing of all, who did this?
Daniel Holland, who tweeted the robot yesterday, told me in a Twitter message that he doesn't actually know where the source video came from, because he found it on Reddit. When you search Google for the thing, it mostly brings you back to blogs about his tweet. Today, Reddit is absolutely full of reposts of the video, with no source.
The oldest version I could find, and the first one I saw with sound, was posted by u/taykaybo yesterday. In that one, you can hear the students trying to ask it questions; at the end, after it pauses its tortured writhing, someone says "Are you okay?" and it responds, "No." Clearly!
A lot of people replied to that post with "r/dontputyourdickinthat," a subreddit about what it sounds like—which is more ironic than they realize, because as a little more hunting uncovered for me, this thing could actually be the product of a sex doll maker.
I found a 2011 research paper where an early version of a dental training robot was described by researchers at the Showa University School of Dentistry, in Tokyo, Japan. They named their robot Showa Hanako.
In a video from 2011, Koutaro Maki, a professor at Showa University, explains that to get the silicone skin just right, they made the robot in collaboration with sex doll maker Orient Industry—a company that's been cited as "Japan’s leading manufacturer of high quality love dolls." Hanako is a sex doll, getting a root canal.
Orient Industry was founded in 1977 by former sex shop owner Hideo Tsuchiya, after he got tired of customers coming in to return inflatable latex sex dolls complaining of punctures.
According to that paper, the researchers were working on ways to improve dental school training beyond studying on a stationary mannequin. "There are certain routine patient management problems in dentistry, such as dealing with apprehension, restlessness and anxiety, or managing an unexpected movement such as a vomiting reflex, coughing and tongue thrusting," they wrote. It was important to them to make a robot that had a realistic tongue and could gag and blink and respond to requests—and what better to fit the bill than a love doll maker.
A Showa Hanako 2 implies the existence of Hanako 1. The first attempt of the robot was made with the help of Japanese robotics company Tmusk for voice recognition and movement, and looks a lot more stiff and less realistic than the current version. Tmusk called it DENTAROID.
Dentistry Online reported in 2011 that the first Hanako was made from PVC instead of silicone. The sex doll company was called in when the inventors found the original Hanako to be too scary-looking. "We were looking for a more realistic reaction from the robot, which now we think we have achieved," Professor Yuuji Sato told Dentistry Online. "To make the robot training natural for students we called in Orient to help us with the design and create a more life-like experience."
Around the same time, in 2011, another team of researchers at Nippon Dental University unveiled Simroid. This robot goes further than Hanako, with sensors in the body (specifically, the researchers note the breast sensors) that make the robot jump and gasp when the dentist leans on it while working.
Professor Akira Hamura, one of Simroid's creators, said in a video at the time that they used a "different material" than silicone—one that doesn't tear if stretched too far or damaged by dental instruments. Sounds a lot like the "cyberskin" stuff they make Fleshlights out of, but I wasn't able to find documentation anywhere of what Simroid's face is really made of.
It's hard to tell which of these dueling dentistry robots is malfunctioning in the viral video. Both Simroid and Hanako have speech recognition, and both have the movement abilities within them to get feisty with students. Either way, it seems like there was a heated race for the best tooth-bot ten years ago that's brought us here today. Whichever it is—Hanako or Simroid, or something else entirely—I hope it finds some peace.