July 25th, 2014

Humanized Robots

The BBC announced that a Japanese researcher has produced a human-like robot that is unusually lifelike.

female robot  Eliza Doolittle?

It is interesting to know that this is possible technically, the robots mentioned in Jawfish DARPA Grand Challenge are much more machine-like in form. I find the question of why one would want a humanized robot intriguing.

OK lets get the silly stuff out of the way – sex – somehow I don’t think robot prostitutes will catch on, and anyway I don’t care much. You can see a niche market for giant Barbies among the Hollywood set though. Competition between man and machine is a mostly mythic issue, like John Henry and the steam hammer. The real conflict with machines comes in getting them to work right.

Why make a machine that looks human?

The BBC article seems to say thet the builder assumes it will be easier for people to interact with it. People don’t seem to have trouble interacting with cars, cellphones, appliances, and tools. That is, they don’t seem to need a simulated human face there. Maybe the builder has trouble interacting with people. What would a humanized robot, an android be used for?

Tasks originally scaled to humans would be most easily done by a human-like hand for instance. However those tasks involving manipulation of tools, like coal mining, would be much better done by specialized machines that are unlike humans. Once robots are viable at replacing human laborers, you can see that it might be useful to be able to use human tools like a shovel, but surely a specialized tool like a ditch-digger would be much better than a human-sized tool. Once you don’t need to design a tool for human scale and strength, then a huge number of attractive options become available. An intelligent forklift, or a cable-pulling spider for instance.

In any case none of these practical uses calls for specific looks of any kind. You can imagine herds of John Deere green and Caterpillar yellow equipment, scuffed and battered with use, crawling around a mine or tunnel.

The builders must think communication would be more comforting with an android, hence the choice of a female, who would presumably be less threatening. Is this one of those oddball Japanese things like Pachinko, or robot dogs? Just what would be comforting about a robot that goes around dipping its head and saying “O-hi-O” in a rising intonation?

Assuming human-like androids are not just a quirk of Japanese culture, what would they do? Would a cleaning robot be easier to command if it looked like a person? Models and news readers on TV may have already been replaced by androids ( post-Max Headroom), its hard to know.

Stunt-robots in movies would make a lot of sense. But the trouble with imagining a future of consumer androids is the jobs we want to replace are the lowest-paying, whereas complex androids are going to be very expensive for a long time. That makes them more suitable for high-value and dangerous work. Perhaps military police that look like young girls would be more acceptable. It’s hard to see where the face matters.

Oddly, I’ll bet it’s going to be harder to get good quality artificial speech than a good fake face. After all, special effects people already know a lot about fooling the eye. However, good text-to-speech has been a just around the corner technology for two decades. I’ll bet these android Eliza Doolittles will be more likely seen pulling fuel rods in reactors, than minding their haitches. I don’t see more than a niche requirement for humanized androids, but I wonder. There is a powerful connection to the human face.

What about the Frankenstein?

The humanized android is upsetting, or titillating, or fascinating, or all of the above. The lines of what-is-human already seem blurred to a lot of people. The Frankenstein issue also bothers people. We know that our brain has special areas reserved for facial recognition and attitude decoding, and its pretty obvious that reading faces and voices is tremendously important in keeping our tribe working together. Little babies can decipher a smiling face before most other images.

Would a human form without a face be less charged?

In my imagination it would be creepy, like Night of the Living Dead, to have non-faces on otherwise human-like androids. But, the robot C3PIO in Star Wars has a kind of stupid immobile face that makes him seem harmless.


Are little or young androids less problematic?

Kids and adults have tender feelings toward dolls, though really small kids can be intimidated by dolls and stuffed toys that are too big. Maybe a midget-sized android would seem cute, and therefore more salable. Height is hugely important, especially to men, also broad shoulders. A short, tubby, narrow shouldered style would get a very different reaction than a human forklift, eight feet high, with football shoulders. So too, with the voice.

Designers who wish to make a humanized android are going to have to be very careful to trigger the cute response, rather than the enemy-other response. This sounds like a whole new area for corporate manipulation of human instinct. Beer and cigarettes are played out, but faces and bodies and voices produce intense involuntary reactions. Imagine an attractive waiter/waitress that offers people drinks with suitable flattery. Each bar could have a couple of android hawkers roaming the street out front. It sounds like a dystopia, or worse, performance art.

I am not sure I want to be around when the androids can produce and react to pheromones too.

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