A few years ago a Japanese computer scientist called Hiroshi Ishiguro built what he claimed was the world’s most humanlike and attractive robot. The female android, modelled on a famous Japanese newscaster, was painstakingly created to appear human, not just in looks, but in mannerisms and movements as well. Indeed, from a distance the only thing that really gave the porcelain-faced robot away was the fact that it looked a bit too much like a Japanese version of Nicole Kidman.
But here’s the really weird bit. The robot’s creator found that whilst most adults found the robot to be very disturbing, some people, especially small children and elderly people took it at face value. It was merely a human looking interface that could be used for entertainment and communication purposes (so perhaps a bit like Nicole again?). Adults were disturbed by the robot because it looked too similar to a real person, whereas our more mellow members of society saw it as another amusing toy or a useful gadget.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, there were 610,000 robots in service worldwide in 2004. There are now 6.5 million and this figure is expected to reach 18 million by the year 2011. In other words, we are on the cusp of robots becoming quite common, not just in factories, but in schools, hospitals and even at home.
Back in Japan there are robotic security guards at the Aqua City shopping mall in Tokyo. The so-called Reborg-Q security robot weighs 90kg and is 130com tall. More worrying is a robot that is currently being evaluated by NEC in Japan. The PaPeRo (Partner-type Personal Robot) is not especially humanoid but again small children seem to regard it as friendly and have no difficulty becoming friends with it.
What’s especially spooky about this particular robot though is that the applications NEC is looking at include child-care centres and kindergartens. This fact isn’t in itself a worry because human carers would also be present but there is no reason why the robot can’t also be used by busy parents to look after their children late at night.
The PaPeRo robot comes with a camera, face-recognition software, microphones and wireless communication via a mobile phone. Parents can therefore see and communicate with their children through the robot via another mobile phone. So, in theory, you could go back to the office and do a few extra hours work or pop down the road for a meal with friends and leave your child in the care of a small ‘bot.
Is this something that we want to happen? Also on the horizon are robots in aged-care facilities and the US military is already using robots for surveillance purposes in Afghanistan and battlefield robots aren’t far away. Maybe they should make them look like our Nicole Kidman. That would be really scary.