We, Robot

Excerpted with permission from We, Robot: Skywalker’s Hands, Blade Runners, Cyborg Eels, Slutbots, and How Fiction Became Fact Mark Stephen Meadows / Chapter 8  (© 2011, Mark Stephen Meadows.  Published by Lyons Press, Guilford, CT)

Next to a windy field at the edge of the town of Osaka, the huge steel building of ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories sits incongruously, like some great metallic coffer full of alien jewels.  Inside are the labs, some of which have a reputation of being full of robot parts, monkey parts, and monkeys attached to robot parts.  I understand there are a large number of PhDs in here, too.

I’m met in the lobby by Dr. Ishiguro’s secretary, and we walk down one interminable hallway after another, her high heels snapping rhythmically on the polished marble floor ahead of me as we turn down one tunnel, then through another, up some stairs, into a carpeted area, and down another hallway.  It is like some Escher maze; I haven’t seen any robot parts yet, nor have I heard any monkeys screaming.

Finally the marble floor gives way to carpet, and a loose wire is seen, like a worm crossing a road after the rains.  Only one wire.

Then another, and then some bolts and a nut, and at last I can breathe easy as we round the final labyrinthine angle and come to the robotics lab.  This is what I was looking for.

It’s like a robot war zone.  Soldering irons and wires and cogs and green circuit boards are scattered across the floor.  A little arm sits in the corner; a leg rests against a chair.  Some small wheels and little plastic bags full of terminals have been spilled near a desk. I avoid stepping on a doll’s head.  It has wires sticking out of the neck, and one eye is closed.

Established in 1986, and home to 107 employees, the labs of ATR have become one of the premier research centers in the world.  Pretty much anyone that’s used the words robot and serious in the same sentence has touched this laboratory.  For example, Honda, when they wanted the BMI machine, came to ATR for the development, one of hundreds of collaborations that have happened with ATR in the field of robotics.  Another famous contribution is from Dr. Norihiro Hagita, who developed a framework of network robot technology—connecting robots in a network to provide them with the ability to communicate, and to give them more than individual service capacities.

Dr. Ishiguro’s secretary, Masae, escorts me into a small room with some black curtains on the opposite wall.  I sit down in the chair she has indicated.  She leaves.  As I turn around in my seat I notice that there is a man sitting in front of me, in front of the black curtains.  He is dressed in a black shirt and black pants.  His hands are folded in his lap.  His head jerks up as if he has just emerged from a dream, and he sits upright and looks at me.  He doesn’t blink.  The side of his mouth is slack, especially his right side, almost as if he has suffered a mild stroke.

He doesn’t drool, but he doesn’t look comfortable, and he shifts again.  There seems to be some slight deformity to his neck and hands, as if the bones had been broken, then reset, or as if there is a problem with his body’s ability to distribute fat to the appropriate places.  His eyes are waxy and dry, and his flat, bloodless complexion makes him seem like a zombie, only recently roused from a Haitian grave.

Unnerved, I stand up from my chair and take a step to my right.  His gaze follows me.  I pause, then take a couple of steps to my left; he once again follows me with his blank expression.  I have the uncanny feeling that I’m being stared at by someone who has had the blood drained out of his body, and had his veins filled with a liquid plastic.  There is no light in the eyes.  It feels like I’m being stared at by a corpse.

This is the android double of Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, his geminoid.  Forty-two pneumatic actuators are embedded in the android’s torso, which allow it to silently (and relatively smoothly) sit up.  Tactile sensors are embedded under the skin, connected to sensors in its environment, such as omnidirectional cameras, microphone arrays, and floor sensors.  So the robot is sensing me in the room, tracking my movements, and, well, pointing its face at me.  I test this a bit by taking another step to my right, and the robot’s head turns and watches me.  I’m definitely not comfortable with this.  The thing is human (but not entirely), and machinery (but not entirely), and I am wondering if there’s someone on the other side of a camera (that must surely be stuck inside the android’s head), watching me.

I’ve heard that the geminoid has sensors embedded in its face, and that it is alert to touch, as well.  This takes me a second to consider, but then, my decision made, I step forward and the door opens.  Dr. Ishiguro himself comes in and turns, smiles, and bows. He says hi, and I’m reminded of why I like humans so much—they smile, they move, they glow with a little sweat on the head, they laugh and stumble.  My own indiscretions aside, Dr. Ishiguro is no klutz, but he has a slightly awkward movement that gives him a human characteristic, and, as you might have guessed, a somewhat geeky personality that’s spiced up with the rich flavor of a very strong ego.

After a few minutes of discussion and get-to-know-you talk, the good doctor tells me there is no Uncanny Valley in his machine.  I cannot agree with him on that.  Maybe he can no longer see any possible threat from the thing.  Or perhaps it is because he has spent so much time with it, or because it looks so much like him.  In any case, his project is not about spelunking the caves that he’s surely visited in the Uncanny Valley.  His project is not about what is horrific when we get close to realistic, but about the opposite. What is it that makes a human seem like a being?  Where does personality live?  What do we do that allows us to seem like ourselves?

Dr. Ishiguro has visited the strange worlds of virtual existence, of online living, and, deciding that it is unworthy of his efforts, he has returned to the physical with a kind of vengeance.  He has plunged into the world of the body as if he were, like a mosquito, looking for truth in the flesh.  He has simmered in the plastics and metals, the wires and polycarbonates.  He has sampled all the software he can taste.  He has clearly seen the future of the robot, and he clearly has a kind of desire to find something new.  And for him, it’s about the physical first, even though the soul does, at times, seem so digital.

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