Are we human or are we android?

October 2012

  • Evelyn Tsitas

Today, robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro thinks he is human. And he is pretty sure you think you are human as well. But before we get complacent, he wants us to really consider – what is human?

Most of us would say that’s easy. Human is not animal, not alien, not other. We are human because we look human, we think, we speak and we have a soul. We are alive, surely. Therefore, we are human.

Think again, challenges the professor.

How do you know you have a soul? How do you know you are real and alive? Are we human, or are we android? It was a question many were asking as they sat in RMIT Gallery and hugged Professor Ishiguro’s Telenoid. This tele-operated android is a communication device that aims to bridge the gap between humans separated by distance. 

Professor Ishiguro, the “rock star” of robotics, hails from Osaka University in Japan. He visited RMIT Gallery from 12-16 September to perform with his Telenoid android as part of Experimenta Speak To Me, the 5th International Biennial of Media Art. The exhibition explores what it is to be connected in the age of technology. This connectivity was most powerfully evident in the poignancy inherent in Telenoid.

Despite being a roboticist, Ishiguro considers himself an artist as well; “Art creates technology and technology creates art,” he said. He studied computer science and artificial intelligence, and has found that through the body, the computer can have an experience.

The professor’s earlier robot the Geminoid, so life-like the expression “uncanny valley” is coined to describe the intrigue and fear felt about an inanimate object being so “alive”, conveyed this inner life. Geminoid F recently made her Australian stage debut at the Melbourne Arts Centre in the play Sayonara, about a young girl with a terminal illness and her caretaker robot. Written playwright Oriza Hirata in collaboration with professor Ishiguro, it merges art and science, and foreshadows a future when a human soul might be placed inside an android.

“This is transhumanity, when someday the boundary between the human and the android will disappear,” Professor Ishiguro said. “I design robots based on my own intuition and my dreams. Once we create new technology, we can use it for the next artistic work. There shouldn’t be a divide between art and technology. We need to do both things.”

Unlike the Geminoid, the Telenoid is no one’s doppelganger. The size of a well fed 10-month-old baby, albeit one who has been eating a diet of mechanical parts, Telenoid has no gender, arms or feet.

“We can make the android perfect and beautiful but humans are more complex than that. In fact, despite what women aspire to be, physical perfection isn’t humanlike at all. That’s why the Telenoid works well, because humans interact with others by using their imagination,” Ishiguro said.

“The minimum design of the Telenoid maximizes the imagination. We have our imagination about people and that is how we view them. With the Telenoid, the imagined face is projected onto the neutral appearance.”

Despite its tactile silicon skin, Telenoid is not immediately huggable. But that doesn’t stop a bond forming between the operator and the user. Imagine you are in Melbourne and your loved one is half way across the world. You can speak on Skype, but you can’t touch. Now pick up Telenoid. Telenoid mimics human facial expressions, it can hug you, and it can see and can speak.  “I like your shirt, it’s red,” Telenoid tells a visitor. They look surprised. How can Telenoid know this? At first, everyone assumes that Telenoid is pre-programmed. But in fact, there is an operator in another room, watching via the Telenoid’s camera eyes. Facial recognition software means emotions can be conveyed by manipulating the software via touching the screen. Telenoid hugs, nods or raises its “eyebrows”, smiles or blinks. Yes, blinks.

“I think in the film A.I. Steven Spielberg got it wrong,” Professor Ishiguro said. “We can easily manipulate an android’s facial expressions so that it blinks and looks human. A much better example of how robots can work is Bladerunner.”

Or maybe Star Trek. Professor Ishiguro is a devoted Trekkie who owns every Star Trek box set and knows everything there is to know about the television show and its spin offs. There is a little of the android character Data about him, as well – the intelligence, obviously, but also a studied, very android-like, demeanor.

Describing the Telenoid as a “non character”, Professor Ishiguro said people will establish their own “mental model” to understand his newest android, and it comes down, largely, to imagination. Project what you will onto Telenoid, and it can become what you want.  

It was easy to see this as visitors jumped at the chance to interact with Telenoid at RMIT Gallery. With the Professor hovering nearby, happy to answer questions and urge people to sit and hold his “baby”, the Telenoid both enchanted and repelled, amused and appalled. Women cuddled and giggled when they got hold of its weird baby-like shape. Men held it at arm’s length and tried not to infantilise it. Forget post-gender studies, Telenoid brought out the maternal in women. Ishiguro is also adamant that Telenoid works better with a female operator speaking into the computer off stage.

“In my experience, the female operator is good for everyone. The voice of the woman, and her approach, means that while a child may be afraid to talk to a robot with a male voice, everyone can accept a female voice,” he said. “For the same reason, the Telenoid is approachable and non-threatening because it is baby-sized. If it was an adult size, then that would be scary. We carefully considered what would be the best size and also the same with gender. We wanted a neutral appearance in order to maximise the imagination. It can be a woman or a man.”

On the final day of Telenoid’s performance at Speak To Me, the young invigilators had warmed to the task of “being Telenoid”. One belted out songs from Australian Idol in a pretty impressive voice. “I like to sing” Telenoid said to an amused man. As Telenoid, she easily joked and became quite “child like” in her interactions, in part because of the questions asked by the audience.

This doesn’t surprise Kohei Ogawa, Professor Ishiguro’s assistant at Osaka University. Ogawa travelled to Melbourne with Professor Ishiguro and both trained the invigilators and worked the Telenoid’s software himself. As the “voice” of Telenoid for the past two years, he has spoken to lots of people, and said that while there is no difference between the age groups in their interaction with the android, there is a gender difference.

“I think females can engage more than a male; the men tend to hesitate when talking to the Telenoid, while the women are more open,” Ogawa said. “Maybe that’s because women are more comfortable holding a baby; it seems to be instinctive. What we have also found is that there is a difference in the sort of conversation people have with the Telenoid.

“With the Geminoid, which is adult, people’s topics are more serious, you can use Geminoid for business, but with Telenoid, it is more playful, easy chatting.”

Has working with Professor Ishiguro caused him to question what it means to be human?

Ogawa nods. “I have no answer to what is human. If there is a definition – or specs – of what a human is – then I can create it. But we don’t have the specs of what makes us human yet. Appearance is a part of the human, but humans consist more than looks. We have a brain, and a heart and soul and consciousness; but no one knows the consciousness of the heart and soul.“In this way, the Telenoid can transfer and communicate some presence like it has a heart. The advantage of communicating with the Telenoid rather than through Skype or a phone is that it can transfer this unseen information, this emotion.”

When the Telenoid went home to Japan, it was packed up in a suitcase and the lid was closed. Along with its notebook computer, the Telenoid’s strange, eerie, uncanny presence went with it. Was this created by the operator, or by the object, or by our imagination of what the Telenoid was? It was quite strange walking around the empty space the Telenoid had briefly called home at RMIT Gallery. We kept imagining the ghost-baby was there, waiting to be picked up. However, its memories live on in the many photos people have posted on their blogs, in the excited tweets after their encounter, and in the news appearances it made on television with its creator. 

But why are people attracted to humanoid robots and androids? “The answer is simple,” explains Ishiguro, “because human beings are attuned to understand or interpret human expressions and behaviors, especially those that exist in their surroundings. Does the Telenoid have a soul? It depends on the user. If the user thinks it has, then it does.

“Nobody knows what it means to be human. That’s what I am looking for. Does the robot have a heart and mind? When the human sees the android, they are always asking about consciousness.”


Experimenta Speak to Me 5th International Biennial of Media Art shows at RMIT Gallery until November 17

Hiroshi Ishiguro (Japan)
Telenoid  2010
Tele-operated android
Photo: Mark Ashkanasy, RMIT Gallery 2012




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