Making Robots Human

[10 August 2011]

By Chris Carroll

Excerpted from “Making Robots Human”, by Chris Carroll, National Geographic, August 2011, on newsstands now. Copyright © 2011. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Photos courtesy of © Max Aguilera-Hellweg / National Geographic. See more photos for this article here on National Geographic.

Someone types a command into a laptop, and Actroid-DER jerks upright with a shudder and a wheeze. Compressed air flows beneath silicone skin, triggering actuators that raise her arms and lift the corners of her mouth into a demure smile. She seems to compose herself, her eyes panning the room where she stands fixed to a platform, tubes and wires running down through her ankles. She blinks, then turns her face toward me. I can’t help but meet her—its—mechanical gaze. “Are you surprised that I’m a robot?” she asks. “I look just like a human, don’t I?”

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(US: Aug 2011)

Her scripted observation has the unfortunate effect of calling my attention to the many ways she does not. Developed in Japan by the Kokoro Company, the Actroid-DER android can be rented to serve as a futuristic spokesmodel at corporate events, a role that admittedly does not require great depth of character. But in spite of the $250,000 spent on her development, she moves with a twitchy gracelessness, and the inelasticity of her features lends a slightly demented undertone to her lovely face. Then there is her habit of appearing to nod off momentarily between utterances, as if she were on something stronger than electricity.

While more advanced models of the Actroid make the rounds of technology exhibitions, this one has been shipped to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to acquire the semblance of a personality. Such at least is the hope of five optimistic graduate students in the university’s Entertainment Technology Center, who have been given one 15-week semester to render the fembot palpably more fem and less bot. They have begun by renaming her Yume—dream, in Japanese.

At Carnegie Mellon University the robot Actroid-DER took a crash course in becoming more human.

At Carnegie Mellon University the robot Actroid-DER took a crash course in becoming more human.

“Kokoro developed her to be physically realistic, but that’s not enough by itself,” says Christine Barnes, student co-producer of the Yume Project. “What we’re going to do is shift the focus from realism to believability.”

The Actroid androids are part of a new generation of robots, artificial beings designed to function not as programmed industrial machines but as increasingly autonomous agents capable of taking on roles in our homes, schools, and offices previously carried out only by humans. The foot soldiers of this vanguard are the Roomba vacuums that scuttle about cleaning our carpets and the cuddly electronic pets that sit up and roll over on command but never make a mess on the rug. More sophisticated bots may soon be available that cook for us, fold the laundry, even babysit our children or tend to our elderly parents, while we watch and assist from a computer miles away.

“In five or ten years robots will routinely be functioning in human environments,” says Reid Simmons, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

With no human coach at the controls, Virginia Tech's robot soccer team dribbled, passed, and scored its way into the 2010 RoboCup

With no human coach at the controls, Virginia Tech’s robot soccer team dribbled, passed, and scored its way into the 2010 RoboCup “kid-size” semifinal in Singapore. The tournament founders’ goal is a robot team that will defeat the human World Cup champs by 2050.

Such a prospect leads to a cascade of questions. How much everyday human function do we want to outsource to machines? What should they look like? Do we want androids like Yume puttering about in our kitchens, or would a mechanical arm tethered to the backsplash do the job better, without creeping us out? How will the robot revolution change the way we relate to each other? A cuddly robotic baby seal developed in Japan to amuse seniors in eldercare centers has drawn charges that it could cut them off from other people. Similar fears have been voiced about future babysitting robots. And of course there are the halting attempts to create ever willing romantic androids. Last year a New Jersey company introduced a talking, touch-sensitive robot “companion,” raising the possibility of another kind of human disconnect.

In short: Are we ready for them? Are they ready for us?

Creepy yet cute, Osaka University's four-foot-tall Child-robot with Biomimetic Body is designed to learn like a child by watching and interacting with humans.

Creepy yet cute, Osaka University’s four-foot-tall Child-robot with Biomimetic Body is designed to learn like a child by watching and interacting with humans.

Linked through a computer, the humanoid BARTHOC and a pair of robotic hands team up to learn from humans at Germany's Bielefeld University. The hands are being trained how to grasp different fruits, while BARTHOC provides a face for the researcher to addre

Linked through a computer, the humanoid BARTHOC and a pair of robotic hands team up to learn from humans at Germany’s Bielefeld University. The hands are being trained how to grasp different fruits, while BARTHOC provides a face for the researcher to to address—a key part of human communication.

Ready to fire bullets and hurl grenades, a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, operated by a soldier behind cover, rolls into action in a training setup at Fort Benning, Georgia. Future military robots endowed with ethical programs might be able to deci

Ready to fire bullets and hurl grenades, a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, operated by a soldier behind cover, rolls into action in a training setup at Fort Benning, Georgia. Future military robots endowed with ethical programs might be able to decide on their own when, and at whom, to shoot.

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