Japan's New Robot Museum Guides Are All Too Human

L to R: Android robot Kodomoroid; Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro; Mamoru Mohri, the chief executive director of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation; Otonaroid, in Tokyo on June 24.

If you’re searching for the uncanny valley, look no further than the work of Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro. He has been creating humanoid robots for years, and his latest incarnation — which is so realistic it's scary — will act as robot guides at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Japan (Miraikan).
The museum will welcome three robots, introduced in Japan on Tuesday. There’s the youthful-looking Kodomoroid, the adult female Ontonaroid and the baby-like Telenoid. With the exception of Telenoid, these robots look remarkably lifelike, have eerily expressive faces and are designed, in a limited sense, to move and communicate like real people. The "uncanny valley" theory holds that human recreations in art (computer animation) and science (robotics) that look very near humanlike, but not quite, can actually can induce a feeling of revulsion.
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Kodomoroid is like a life-sized RSS reader. Its job in the museum will be to continuously recite news, mixing mix up with different voices and languages. Ontonaroid, on the other hand, will be able to carry on limited conversations with museum visitors. However, not everything went smoothly; robots' voices were occasionally out of sync with their mouths and sometimes the robots didn’t respond at all to commands.
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Of the three, Telenoid may be the most disturbing (or adorable, depending on your perspective). Introduced a few years ago, the all-white Telenoid has a humanoid face, but its legs end just below the hips in round stumps; the arms are little more than pointy protuberances. The huggable robot is designed to be a companion for the elderly and children.

Kodomoroid at Miraikan in Tokyo on June 24.
All three robots, which, starting Wednesday, will be part of the museum's “Android: What is Human?” exhibition, can be operated by remote control and through direct human interaction.
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None of Ishiguro’s robots offer the autonomy of a Honda ASIMO. The 4-foot-tall humanoid robot, which does not have a human face, can walk up stairs, jump, dance and kick a ball. It can even bring you a tray of tea. Ontonaroid and Kodomoroid can move their heads, arms and torsos, but they cannot stand up and walk around; in most cases, they need humans behind the scenes to operate.
These androids also represent a departure from Softbank’s recently unveiled robot that can detect emotions, Pepper. While it has a face, Pepper looks more cartoonish than human. It's also more mobile, articulate and autonomous than the museum robots. Even so, Ishiguro sees Pepper’s development and price ($2,000 when it hits shelves next year) as a good sign for robotics.
"Robots are now becoming affordable — no different from owning a laptop," Ishiguro said.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro is on the left and his robot doppelganger is on the right. Or is it the other way around?
Ishiguro has a sort of obsession with lifelike robotics. He has built models that have acted in plays opposite humans, and even built a robot that looks almost like him. This demonstration, like a number of his others, highlights the uncanny valley’s core problem: If you come extremely close to human replication but are just short of the mark, the results are often considered grotesque.
For more on the uncanny valley, watch the video below.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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