A robot gave me side-eye for the first time last week. When I attended the Global Future 2045 conference, a get-together for all sorts of cybernetics enthusiasts, life extension researchers, and singularity proponents, I knew inventor Hiroshi Ishiguro would be speaking and showing off his latest robotic clone.
The Geminoid HI-2 robot, an exact replica of Ishiguro, has surprisingly lifelike tics and shrugs. It also scratches itself and fidgets just like a human. Nonetheless, I still wasn’t expecting the Geminoid to give me an unprompted dirty look. Ishiguro is one of the world’s top experts on human-mimicking robot and wants his creations to be as close to human as possible—but they’re still remote controlled by outside users. The nervous tics, and the fidgeting, however, are hard-coded into the robot.
Ishiguro showed the assembled crowd at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hull his robotic clone, alongside a person-like mobile phone case designed to increase human empathy for machines. Ishiguro has been an enthusiastic creator of robotic clones of himself. His previous creations include a female android called Repliee Q1Expo; the robots are even trained to sing pop songs. The robots were explicitly designed by Ishiguro to be human proxies; as he put it during his talk, "Thanks to my android, when I have two meetings I can be in two places simultaneously."
In Ishiguro’s eyes, robotic clones—he calls them androids, even though they cannot operate autonomously—can outperform humans at basic human behaviors thanks to modern engineering. When I saw the Geminoid up close, it fidgeted, yawned, and rolled its eyelids. Even though all this was coded into the robot or remotely performed by an unseen operator, I didn’t recognize the difference. For all intents and purposes, the robot seemed to me like a vaguely bored human being.
Ishiguro’s robotic clone was on stage with him, where it realistically fidgeted as the human it was modeled on pontificated and joked with the audience. The researcher even admitted that, at times, he has used his robots to deliver lectures for him. At the end of the talk, Ishiguro’s clone suddenly jumped to life and told a joke that startled the crowd.
The Geminoid was controlled from off-stage, where an unseen technician guided the robot. A microphone made it talk, and a camera tracked facial and head movements.
Ishiguro’s lab in Japan can manufacture Geminoids for approximately $100,000. One researcher in Denmark, Henrik Scharge of Aalborg University, commissioned his own in 2010. Japanese robotic firm Kokoro assembles the finished robots.
Roboticists and futurists routinely talk about the "uncanny valley"—the strange way that robots become off putting as they resemble human beings more and more. For all intents and purposes, Ishiguro’s Geminoids inhabit the deepest point of the uncanny valley.