Eerily lifelike androids join staff at Tokyo tech museum
By Tim Hornyak
They might not be your idea of the ideal museum guide, but two androids designed to be lifelike have landed “jobs” at a prestigious Japanese technology center.
Named Kodomoroid and Otonaroid, the droids are designed as hyper-realistic androids that look like a girl and a woman, respectively.
At a press event, former astronaut Mamoru Mohri, director of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) in Tokyo, presented Otonaroid with its official credentials.
Otonaroid accepted the paper, awkwardly grasping it with its fingers coated with synthetic skin. The robot’s business card, which bears the title “science communicator,” was handed out to reporters. It chatted with attendees after Kodomoroid announced the latest earthquake news.
Powered by compressed air and servomotors, the androids can be remote controlled but they cannot walk around.
They can move their upper bodies, arms, fingers and heads and also show a range of facial expressions while lip-synching prerecorded speech.
Kodomoroid is linked to the Internet and will read out the latest news when the machines go on display from Wednesday. Otonaroid can be controlled by visitors so they can experience what it’s like to have a robot surrogate.
A third droid being put on display at the Miraikan is Telenoid, a toddler-sized, remote-controlled humanoid that was first shown off in 2010 as a way to convey emotions through a machine surrogate. Lacking the realism of Kodomoroid and Otonaroid, its pale body has been compared, unfavorably, to an overgrown fetus.
They’re the handiwork of a team led by Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) roboticist who has been creating extremely lifelike androids for years. He’s known for creating an android “clone” called Geminoid that is the spitting image of himself.
“Until now, you could only see androids in research labs, so having them as permanent museum exhibits is an advance,” Ishiguro said at the press event. “Their hands move and their faces have move natural expressions.”
A kind of “Pinocchio” moment occurred when Kodomoroid asked Ishiguro why he had created it. He responded that he wanted to create a child news announcer.
Ishiguro and Mohri conceded that the technology still has plenty of kinks, as seen in a hiccup during the event when Otonaroid failed to respond when it was asked to introduce itself.
The machines join Japan’s most famous humanoid, Honda’s Asimo, among the robot exhibits at the museum and are meant to anticipate a time when androids are so lifelike that humans may have difficulty distinguishing them, a scenario raised in the classic science fiction film “Blade Runner.” They’re experiments designed to provoke questions about what it means to be human.
“I hope these new science communicators can help increase the numbers of return visitors to the museum,” Mohri said.
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