K-bot, created by David Hanson


The Building of Lifelike Robots

Uncanny Valley and its Implications
David Hanson, who created the "expressive robo-face" called K-bot that has 24 actuators, pushes for realistic robot faces which, he contends, can be beneficial to us in many ways (Watch how the face twitches!). Disputing the idea of the Uncanny Valley which "plays on fear rather than possibility," Hanson argues for the positive benefits that truly lifelike robots may entail (Ferber).

Tara, a singing robot
Let's take a look at another example. How about an android that sings? By the look of "Tara" and her singing in her music video, touted by her creator, the Uncanny Valley seems to come back and haunt us (Watch how Tara sings in her Music Video). How close or far are we in plunging into the bottom of the Uncanny Valley in the case of the singing Tara ? Why does this pursuit of verisimilitude come about? What are the assumptions, benefits, pitfalls and promises behind it all?

Regarding different functions and roles, there is the line drawn between a lifelike robot and a mechanically looking one.

In robotics, there is the line drawn between a lifelike robot and a mechanically looking one
For those that are designed to function mostly in social interactions, they are made lifelike after the image of human to increase attractiveness, so much so that people forget about their mechanical identity. On the other hand, in other less socially oriented situations, it matters less if they look human or not as long as those robots perform their duties properly.

The creation of lifelike robots
The inception of "affective computing" promoted by Rosalind Picard, professor at MIT, prompted scientists, researchers and amateurs to explore into the implications of how emotions built in robots can change the way human interacts with machines. Along the line of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's argument in his 1994 book, Descartes' Error , that, "our ability to reason depends in part on our ability to feel emotion". Picard initiated the project of affective computing (Diamond). She holds that "computers will need emotions to be truly intelligent, and in particular to interact intelligently with humans" (Diamond ). On the opposite end, the absence of emotional expressions in social interactions gives sense of indifference.

Built-in emotions make it a lot easier for robots to generate efficient and effective responses

Proponents of this view argue that built-in emotions make it a lot easier for robots to detect human emotional state in order to generate efficient and effective responses. To reach this goal, the premises is, to endow the machines with human-like sensory organs like eyes, noses, ears, so the machines can simulate human emotional expression. According to Bartneck, the first step toward building an "emotive computer" is to " give machines the equivalent of the eyes, ears, and other sensory organs" that humans use to recognize and express emotion (Bartneck et.al).

Norman pushes the boundary further -- the more human like the better, which led him to publicize the critical importance of emotions for robot: "I decided that what it needed was emotions, or affect" (Interview with Norman ). When asked to specify emotions, Norman held that:

The key point boils down to the concept of preparing the robots for the unexpected so they can adopt preventive measures which is something not sufficiently met with by "hard-coded algorithms" (Gibbs).

If a robot doesn't recognize social rules, it may treat humans as obstacles and will not complete its task.

Fervor in the intelligent and intuitive social interaction with robots
Many scientists and researchers are not content to just stop there. Other than emotions, they further their exploration into the possibility of robots that would take the cues of social and cultural conventions to become better assimilated to the human world. According to Nakauchi and Simmons,if a service robot is asked to purchase merchandise and it does not know the social rules of humans, it may treat the humans who are standing in line as obstacles and will not be able to achieve its task. Therefore, service robots should be designed to understand the social behaviors of humans, and to obey social rules.(Nakauchi et.al)

Bruce points out similar concept that robots need to be grounded on "socially correct" behavior (Bruce ). By transparent interface and seamless interaction, interacting with robos brings more pleasure particularly at the point when people forget about the robotic identity. It is in these assertions that the development of lifelike robots fervently marches ahead.

Examples of Lifelike Robots

Repliee Q1Expo designed by Professor Ishiguro

Female android Repliee Q1 is claimed to be by far the most humanlike creation by Japanese scientists. Created by Professor Ishiguro of Osaka University , she can "flutter her eyelids and move her hands like a human. She even appears to breathe" ( Whitehouse ). Her creator Professor Ishiguro asserts that his past experiences with creating robots have led him to affirm the importance of verisimilitude which gives a robot a strong sense of presence. He further comments on his creation that "Consciously, it is easy to see that she is an android, but unconsciously, we react to the android as if she were a woman..." (Whitehouse). Is the Uncanny Valley looming on the horizon?

Valerie, a domestic android
Reception Robot ACTROID
She can speak different languages and do house chores. As a service robot, she appears somewhat humanlike. Where do we stand in the Uncanny Valley upon seeing this female robot? Will we interact with a lifelike robot better, in managing household chores, than with a mechanical looking one? She is promoted as bearing a striking
resemblance to a woman with a good command of four languages and can carry on conversations in relevant language. How does her doll-like and blemish-free face appeal to us? Does it remind us of those faces free of wrinkles as a result of plastic surgery? In what sense is she humanlike and in what sense is she not (Watch how she interacts with people)?

Lifelike Robots: The Other Side of the Story

Humans build robots to understand themselves

The other side of the story tells that it is wiser to make transparent the mechanicalness and artificiality of the machines. Those who hold this view explicate the "quirk of our psychology" tends to anthropormorphize things that behave only in a slightly human way while feeling repulsed by those explicitly humanoid ones. To avoid the pitfall of the Uncanny Valley , Clive Thompson suggests that we head toward the opposite direction and embrace " low-rez simplicity" (Thompson ). Yet at the same time he regrets the fact that people do adapt to the uncannily lifelike humanoid much in the same way as we do toward those who have plastic surgery in the real world with the implication that people do adapt to what is uncanny. With this, he concludes that "Creepiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder" ( Thompson).

An Android of Rare Perfection by E. Emswiller in Galaxy Science Fiction (1954)

Rodney A. Brooks, director of the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, also scrutinizes t he issues and concerns about whether we should imbue so much humanness in robots. He argues for the inherent relativism behind the phenomenon. Seeing that the line between machine and human, mechanicalness and humanity, consciousness and mindlessness, is indeterminate and blurry, we may as well go overboard by "overanthropormorphiz[ing] humans" (Teresi). In that sense, if we want to stop rejecting and questioning robots, we need to "give up the notion of man's specialness" (Teresi).

Machine as human and human as machine
In the final analysis, if controversies and divergent views abound in the discussion of humanoid robots, one point seems to be shared by those who get involved. Humans build robots to understand themselves. The topic of humanoid robots provokes questions like "what does it mean to be human?" People can be cold-blooded, mechanically wired and emotionally inaccessible in various situations. In subjecting themselves unthinkingly to the mechanical tools and technology around them, they can forget what it means to think and live like a human without machines and allow machines to shape their thinking and lives. Interestingly, people create lifelike robots to be engaging and pleasant for the purpose of better interaction, hence, communication, which begs the questions: