Meet the Remote-Control Self

KYOTO, Japan -- Hiroshi Ishiguro is a busy man. Between his two jobs, countless meetings and presentations, his demanding schedule was eating up all his time. So he built an android version of himself to pick up the slack.

Ishiguro, a senior researcher at ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories outside Kyoto, has created a machine in his own image -- a robot that looks and moves exactly like him. It sits on a chair and gazes around the room in a very humanlike fashion, just like its creator. In fact, the robot is an exact duplicate.

Ishiguro's silicone-and-steel doppelgänger was made from casts taken from his own body. Powered by pressurized air and small actuators, it runs on semiautonomous motion programs.

It blinks and fidgets in its seat, moving its foot up and down restlessly, its shoulders rising gently as though it were breathing. These micromovements are so convincing that it's hard to believe this is a machine -- it seems more like a man wearing a rubber mask. But a living, breathing man.

But "Geminoid HI-1," as the robot is called, has another trick up its sleeve.

"Everyone, thank you so much for coming today," it says in polite but languid Japanese at an ATR demo Thursday, its lips moving to the sound. The voice is Ishiguro's, broadcast through a speaker inside his android double.

Geminoid can be operated remotely so the robot reproduces the voice, posture and lip movements of Ishiguro, who wears a motion-capture system. A mouseclick raises a hand or finger.

Ishiguro, whose job is teaching at Osaka University, an hour's drive away, designed Geminoid so he could "robot in" to his classes and skip the commute. As he steps out from behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, standing beside his robot self, the shift is disconcerting.

"The idea is tele-interaction," says Ishiguro, who is also head of the university's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory. "If I access the android through the internet, I do not need to go to ATR anymore."

Ishiguro said he wants the robot to have sonzai-kan, or presence. His group will try to quantify the elusive quality that makes people sit up and take notice, and figure out how it can be captured and transmitted.

"I want to check whether students, as well as my family, can feel my presence through Geminoid," says Ishiguro, who seems perfectly at ease with his new twin.

Geminoid already has a palpable gravitas that comes across when chatting to Ishiguro through the android, and one hesitates to even poke the machine's rubbery hands and cheeks.

Ishiguro's droid-making expertise derives in part from his collaboration with Tokyo robotics and entertainment firm Kokoro, whose "Actroid" android receptionists interacted with visitors to Japan's 2005 Aichi Expo in four languages. The partnership produced Repliee Q1expo, a sophisticated female android that was built by "copying" an actual TV newscaster. Like Geminoid, Repliee could fool onlookers and be mistaken for a real person.

But why bother to build robots that look like humans? Ishiguro views machines as good vehicles to learn more about human nature. He combines engineering with cognitive science with the aim of making very humanlike robots, which can be used as test beds for theories about human perception, communication and cognition. He calls his approach "android science."

"A robot is a kind of simulator for expressing human functions, especially the cerebellum or the muscles," says Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR lab that developed Geminoid. "It's a kind of ultimate human interface."

Aside from improving his android's lip synchronization and developing autonomous control of eye gaze, Ishiguro wants to start interacting with students through Geminoid.

The research might lead to better humanoid robots, or possibly even open up a market of remote androids for hire -- rent a robot in Paris or Pago Pago, have real-world interaction with friends through it, and never leave home. Ishiguro, naturally, has already thought of this: "If I could have one at the university, and one at ATR, I would just do all my work from a hot-springs resort," he laughs  (Tim Hornyak, 07.20.06)