My Robot Friend: The Promise of Social Robots

Medium | 5 April 2020

Rather than fear robots will take our jobs, we should be more worried there won’t be enough of them as the workforce ages.

by Wilson da Silva

THERE IS SOMETHING unnerving about Geminoid F. She breathes, blinks, smiles, sighs, frowns, and speaks in a soft, considered tone. On the surface, she appears to be a Japanese woman in her 20s, about 165 cm tall with long dark hair, brown eyes and soft pearly skin. She breathes, blinks, smiles, sighs, frowns, and her lips move when she speaks in a soft, considered tone.

But the soft skin is made of silicon, and underneath that is urethane foam flesh, with a plastic head atop a metal skeleton. Her movements are powered by pressurised gas and an air compressor hidden behind her chair. She sits with her lifelike hands folded casually on her lap. She — one finds it hard to say “it” — had been on loan to the Creative Robotics Lab at the University of New South Wales in Sydney when I visited, and where mechatronics researcher David Silvera-Tawil had set her up for a series of experiments.

“For the first three or four days I would get a shock when I came into the room early in the morning,” he tells me. “I’d feel that there was someone sitting there looking at me. I knew there was going to be a robot inside, and I knew it was not a person. But it happened every time!”

The director of the lab, Mari Velonaki, an experimental visual artist turned robotics researcher, has been collaborating with Geminoid F’s creator, Hiroshi Ishiguro, who has pioneered the design of lifelike androids at his Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University.

Their collaboration seeks to understand ‘presence’ — the feeling we have when another human is in our midst. How does the feeling arise? And can it be reproduced by robots?

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