Robots Get Us Closer to 'Blade Runner' Replicants: Page 2


More recently, Hollywood broached the possibility of falling in love with technology in the critically acclaimed movie, Her. Released 2013 and set in the not-too-distant future, the film tells the story of an introverted loner, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls for an intelligent operating system that exists only as a female voice on his computer and mobile devices.

Today robots are still discernibly robots, with many designed deliberately to look artificial -- Honda's ASIMO was introduced to much fanfare in 2000 as a multi-functional mobile assistant which resembles a shrunken spaceman.

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A chatty humanoid called Pepper was unveiled recently by Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank, which claims it can understand people's emotions and "70-80 percent of spontaneous conversations."

Pepper, which will go on sale to the general public in February for $2,000, has humanoid features -- like a head and two arms -- but its white plastic body deliberately points up its artificiality.

Uncanny Valley

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori suggested that the more robots look like people, the more we find them creepy, a phenomenon he called the "uncanny valley." Ishiguro's initial human android, based on his own daughter, reduced her to tears, but he insisted Mori's phenomenon no longer applied after perfecting the template.

"The first android's movement was jerky, like a zombie," said Ishiguro. "But we have overcome the uncanny valley."

Research by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) bears that out. They tested reactions to androids in hospitals with largely positive results.

"We used androids in sessions with children suffering from ASD (autism spectrum disorder)," said Yoshio Matsumoto, research leader in service robots at AIST. "Of 85 subjects, four said they thought the robots were scary."

Ishiguro foresees that just as younger people today are attached to their mobile phones -- in reality powerful computers that mediate much of their lives -- androids will one day become an indivisible part of our landscape.

"Everyone is going to have an android," he predicted. "Handicapped people need another body. We are going to have more choices."

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He also believes the floodgates to deepening relationships with robots will open once Pepper goes on sale and people take 'him' into their hearts. But, he says, that is where the moral problems will arise.

"As we become closer to androids, we could hesitate to pull the switch," he said. "Suppose you lost your daughter in a traffic accident, and I create her android. You will probably love the android, and accept it as a human. Suppose someone burgles your house and you kill them to protect the robot. What kind of discussion will the lawyers have in court?"

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