Human-looking robots entering the workplace

By Kathy Gurchiek
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Hiroshi Ishiguro has taken outsourcing to extraordinary levels. He has created a robotic duplicate of himself, which can handle his teaching duties at Osaka University, about a two-hour commute from ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories outside Kyoto, Japan, where he is a visiting group leader.

Standing at 5-foot-9-inches tall, Geminoid HI-1 is a life-size image of Ishiguro, although at 220 pounds it stands heavier on the scales than the professor, who can operate it from a computer in the university lab.

In a kind of techno-twist reminiscent of the 1996 movie Multiplicity, the robotic twin has Ishiguro’s face, voice and hairstyle as well as a similar wardrobe and glasses. A click of a computer mouse raises the robot’s hand or finger. Its silicon and aluminum body takes its form from casts of Ishiguro’s body. Functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of Ishiguro also were used to shape the android’s head and body.

[For a short video clip of robot and master conversing, click on Greetings.]

Robots that take on a too-human appearance is called “uncanny valley” syndrome and some think people better respond to robots if they closely resemble humans.

Unlike in the movie, though, Geminoid HI-1 isn’t intended to replace Ishiguro in the classroom but to serve as a research tool for studying human presence.

Among the World Future Society’s forecast for 2007 is that “the robotic workforce will change how bosses value employees,” which notes that “businesses will ‘hire’ whatever type of mind that can do the work—robotic or human.”

The advance of technology is raising visions of a new age in which machines take over many of the functions now performed by people—a vision that, while exciting to some people, might be threatening to others.

However, people should not fear that employers could use androids—which don’t require raises or vacations, take smoke breaks or have work/life balance issues—to take over workplaces, Ishiguro said.

“This is a serious misunderstanding on technology,” he told HR News. “If we replace our simple jobs with androids, we can focus on more human-like jobs.”

Robots in the workplace

That’s already happening in some workplaces, and an article in Wired magazine in 2004 noted how “machines are getting more and more like the rest of us.”

During the 2005 Japan World Expo, a multi-lingual Actroid robot greeted guests at the information booth. The robot, which looks like a 20-year-old Japanese woman, reportedly understands 40,000 phrases in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean; can perform rap music; and has nuanced facial expressions to match more than 2,000 types of answers it could give.

It supposedly can joke around, too. When asked if she is a robot, it answers disconnectedly and with awkward movements, and then says “just kidding” before reverting to smooth human motions, according to one report.

Developed by Kokoro and Advanced Media, it was the commercial version of Ishiguro’s previous android.

Not to be outdone by a rapper android, Japanese company iXs Research developed a 13.8-inch-tall, nearly three-pound kimono-clad robot that entertained and educated children in Tokyo in August by demonstrating a traditional dance in a Kyogen play.

The Roboexotica convention in Vienna launched in 1999 promotes the creative and artistic use of home-built robots from around the world that compete in such areas as mixing cocktails and serving drinks. The aim is to promote the creative and artistic use of robots, according to a Reuter’s news report.

“We don’t want to build commercially viable robots. We instead especially want to promote robots that have personality. We want to raise people’s awareness that machines aren’t just something cold and efficient,” Roboexotica founder Magnus Wurzer said in a Dec. 11, 2006 Reuters news report.

Then there’s the animatronic Abe Lincoln at Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. Some critics claim that Geminoid HI-1 is no different from that longtime attraction, but Ishiguro disagrees.

Among other things, he says, Geminoid's software, which took six months to develop, gives it human-like reactions and sophisticated human-like movements. Its hardware, which also took six months to develop, provides it with a greater number of facial expressions. Disney robots don’t have soft skin sensors or enough facial expressions, he says.

Gemmy, as some call the robot, fidgets like a real person. Its eyes blink. Its feet move restlessly. And its shoulders rise and fall as if it were breathing, “just like we human beings,” said Ishiguro’s senior researcher, Shuichi Nishio.

Maybe it’s the eyebrows, but Gemmy looks fierce. This was intentional, Nishio says, “because the ‘original’ [professor Ishiguro] looks like so.

“He seldom laughs. Well, he laughs, but people who are not used to him say that it’s hard to recognize,” Nishio told HR News in a series of e-mail interviews.

It also sounds like Ishiguro, who wears sensors placed around his lips that are wirelessly connected to the android. This allows Gemmy to mimic Ishiguro’s lip movements as Ishiguro’s voice comes through the speaker located behind Gemmy.

“Even though [it is Ishiguro talking] one seems to well get the feeling that HI-1 itself is speaking,” Nishio said.

Ishiguro started using it in September in discussions with his master’s and doctoral students working at ATR, and to research planning meetings with other professors.

Nishio noted that most people are surprised when they see Gemmy for the first time.

The surprise typically is followed by people saying, “ ‘Well, if I see it carefully, I can recognize that it’s a robot.’ The third response, after talking with HI-1 for a while, they say, ‘First, I felt rather uncomfortable with talking with a robot, but after talking for a few minutes, it’s strange but its outlook didn’t bother me anymore and it was just like talking with somebody.’ ”

In a scholarly paper, Ishiguro notes that in less than five minutes, a visitor can adapt to having a conversation with it and “recognizes the geminoid as me while [we are] talking to each other.”

Teaching is not the android’s main purpose. It is, as Nishio repeatedly emphasized, a research tool and prototype for “studies on unsolved problems and to extend the field of android science. … Geminoid is a testbed system for scientific and engineering research,” he said.

“Our purpose is science,” Ishiguro said. “We want to study what sonzai-kan, or human presence, is,” he said.

Geminoid HI-1, which takes its name from a new class of robot similar to android or humanoid robots, stays seated. There are no plans to make it walk, Nishio explained, “because our main interest lies on the robot interface, which can be studied through conversations with people, so no walking is required.”

Carrying out duties more efficiently

While the practical-minded may wonder how efficient androids such as Gemonid HI-1 can be if they require a Wizard of Oz-like presence to operate them from behind a curtain, Ishiguro counters that “the question is how important the authority is for teaching.”

That sonzai-kan is at the core of what they are studying.

One practical use, though, could be in carrying out duties more efficiently, Ishiguro suggested.

“We cannot have perfect interactive robots. If we use interactive robots, including both mechanical-looking robots and androids, they should be a hybrid system consisting of automated functions and functions of tele-operation.

“Suppose five security people are working a building,” he said. “If they are robots or androids, one operator can control five robots.”

The Chicago police department introduced its own version of Robocop —three high-powered water-cannon-wielding, mechanical-looking robots to be used to defuse bombs, detect hazardous substances, locate suspicious devices and interact with suspects in hostage situations. The robots are equipped with pan-tilt zoom cameras, X-ray vision, night vision, chemical sensors, a microphone and speaker. Unlike their real-life counterparts, though, the robots needed half a dozen attempts to climb two stairs during a public unveiling Nov. 16, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Although not human in appearance, two remote-controlled robots—one nicknamed MURDOC, for Mobile Unit Robot Doctor, and the other ROHAS, for Remote Operated Health Assessment System—are on the staff at Methodist Hospital in Houston.

Blue and black and standing nearly six feet tall, the mobile robots are used to care for critically ill patients suffering from strokes and other neurological problems, according to a Nov. 13 news release from the hospital.

Physicians can control the robots—each of which is equipped with a two-way, widescreen TV monitor—from a remote location. Using a laptop computer and a joystick, a physician can guide a robot to a patient’s bed, review a medical chart and speak with patients and nurses, according to the hospital.

The robots don’t replace physicians seeing patients in person, but, the hospital noted, being able to address patient care on a moment’s notice is especially helpful for treating acute stroke patients. The physician can use the robots to supplement hospital visits, such as during overnight shifts.

“Having the ability to see our patients and the [intensive care unit] nursing staff and talk with them face to face when we can’t be there in person greatly impacts how we’re able to provide individualized treatment,” said Dr. Saleem Zaidi in a press release. Zaidi is the neuro-intensivist director in Methodist Hospital’s neurosurgical-ICU unit.

For those fantasizing about having a robotic twin to slide into their chair at boring office meetings or relaxing on the beach while their personal version of Rosie the Robot clocks in for them, Nishio and Ishiguro do not see Geminoid HI-1 as the wave of the near future.

For one thing, it would cost someone about $300,000 to have his or her own look-alike android, according to Ishiguro.

Nishio observed, though, that their research may find that people communicate more smoothly with human-looking robots, making androids similar to HI-1 popular.

The “more important thing” about their research, though, “is that it gives us a chance to consider why the meeting is boring and what the human presence is.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews.

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