Android Science

I’m sure someone has come up with an elaborate theory to explain why Blade Runner had such a profound impact on GenXers, but I’ve yet to read it. All I know is that ever since I watched Daryl Hannah doing somersaults in that black leotard, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of androids.

The slow progress of robotics engineering has long been a source of frustration to me. Sure, Sony’s Aibo robot dogs are cute, but they’re hardly lifelike. I mean, come on–even Teddy Ruxpin had fur. Consequently, I was dubious about reports that Hiroshi Ishiguro, Director of Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, had finally created a convincing human analog. Then, I saw pictures of Repliee Q1expo.

Okay, she’s no Daryl Hannah, but she’s pretty darn impressive. According to Tim Hornyak of Scientific American, who saw the robot live “in person” at the 2005 World Exposition:

[Repliee] had moist lips, glossy hair and vivid eyes that blinked slowly. Seated on a stool with hands folded primly on [her] lap . . . for a mesmerizing few seconds from several meters away, Repliee Q1expo was virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary woman in her 30s.
(From Android Science)

Ishiguro’s android is a benchmark in robotics engineering. She reacts to human touch, responds when spoken to, and records movements and environmental stimuli using tiny video cameras. So, how did he manage to make her so real?

Well, first he modeled his robot on an actual person: Japanese newscaster Ayako Fujii. (Scroll down for compare and contrast shot.) Ishiguro studied Fujii’s physique and mannerisms, built a metal replica of her skeleton, and used pigmented silicone skin, makeup, and a wig to complete the effect.

The second, and more compelling, reason Repliee is so convincing is that Ishiguro used insights garnered from neuroscience and psychology to design his robot. “To make the android humanlike, we [investigated] human activity from the standpoint of cognitive science, behavioral science and neuroscience [and implemented] processes that support it in the android,” he explained in a 2005 paper.

Unfortunately, Scientific American doesn’t go into great detail about the methods Ishiguro used to achieve his results. But the neuropsychological community appears duly impressed. Cognitive scientists are currently using Repliee as a “test bed to study human perception, communication and other faculties.” This unprecedented cross-fertilization of robotics and psychology has been dubbed “android science.” Contemplating the potential of such a discipline is enough to make the mind boggle.