Hiroshi Ishiguro has an identical twin called Geminoid that he built in a laboratory in Osaka, Japan.

Geminoid is a robot with a plastic skull, metal skeleton and silicone skin. Ishiguro controls him from a computer. He talks in his master's voice when Ishiguro speaks into a microphone, and imitates his movements as they are tracked by a camera.

hiroshi ishiguro
© Flickr/nrkbeta

Ishiguro is investigating the effect of transmitting his existence to his robot through a concept known as sonzai-kan, a Japanese term that roughly translates as presence.

His team at the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Osaka University is researching human-robot interaction. Ishiguro believes that the human body provides the ideal interface for this.

"The advantage is it's quite natural for us," he explained at the and& summit in Leuven, Belgium.

"Our brain has many functions to recognise the human face, and voice and gestures."

Ishiguro has a roadmap for the development of robots. It draws on cognitive science to add intelligence, embodiment and multisensory integration that will help manufacture android language teachers and waiters.

It then integrates models for intentions and desires to build conversational robots. Next, it progresses to assimilate concepts of consciousness and social relationships to produce robotic guides, shopkeepers and receptionists.

The final step is the creation of companion robots that can pass the Total Turing Test, an evaluation of artificial intelligence that measures human likeness across all modalities and the human acceptance of the robot as a member of society.

Ishiguro's ultimate goal is to create a human-robot symbiotic society.

"The more human we make robots, the more we will accept them in our daily lives," he said.

But not everyone is as enamoured by humanoids.

Resistance to the humanoid

"When you have a certain appearance, you will have also a certain expectancy about the capabilities of the robot," said Bram Vanderborght, a professor of robotics at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, at a panel debate with Ishiguro earlier that day.

Vanderborght conducts research into mechanical mobility, which has convinced him of the difficulties of replicating human movement in robots, as they lack the body's natural elasticity, flexibility, dexterity and creativity. This is particularly restrictive when the robots have to conduct a variety of tasks.

These limitations could also be our salvation. 

"If you want to feel safe from robots, just shut your door," said Vanderborght. "You don't even need to close it. They won't be able to open it."

Their capabilities would still be sufficient to challenge our values about healthcare. They could remove the human intimacy that provides respite from suffering.

"Do you want your elderly mother looked after by robots or by humans?" asked Tony Belpaeme, a professor of cognitive systems and robotics at Plymouth University.

"Especially if you have to make that decision on behalf of the person who has just been moved into care."

Balpaeme admits that these concerns could dissipate as society becomes more comfortable with robots, a sentiment that Ishiguro echoes.

"We should not have just one answer about this," he said.

"Ethics is closely related to the question of what human is, what society is. Always we are changing the definition of the human and the definition of a society. The most important thing is to keep discussing the issues. We cannot ever have just one answer. It's very dangerous."

The future for humanoids

Balpaeme suggested that giving robots human characteristics in appearance and personality will create more benefits than risks, as it will help them navigate the world and interact with people.

"You will not talk to a disc-like robot that just drives around in your house, but if you have a robot that has some human-like features - for example, a face - then you want to interact with it and that's important," he said.

"We want to build robots that are not just tools that do things for us that are useful, but that are part of our social world as well."

The addition of facial expressions, body gestures and speech could enhance human-robot interaction. Vanderborght has been investigating whether this could improve treatment of children with autism and adults with dementia.

He believes that it's essential to think of the end user from the start when developing robots that work with humans. In a project to develop an industrial robot for Audi, his team worked with a sociologist to ensure that the robot had a social face and gestures.

"That increased the acceptance of the robot by the Audi workers," he said.

Ishiguro believes that such social acceptance of robots is becoming common in Japan.

He says the Japanese government expects the market for interactive and service robots to reach $50 billion in value by 2035, and envisions jobs for them in healthcare, education, retail and tourism.

"Robot teachers in Japan would be better than human teachers," he said. "Japanese students are too shy to talk to a human teacher but not when it is a robot."

They may not be so widely welcome in every country. Robots are already used in restaurants for flipping burgers and sushi conveyor belts, but efficiency isn't all customers want when they eat out. Balpaeme believes that human interaction and care will always be a big part of the attraction.

"I think we're going to value that human experience even more in the future," he said.