What is the future of robots in human society?


Last week I was delighted to speak alongside Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro at the SAP APJ Leadership Summit in Singapore, and spend time with him as we did video interviews to support the event.

I have followed Prof. Ishiguro’s work for many years, first writing about him on this blog in 2006 in a post Being in two places at the same time when he launched his first Geminoid robot. Below is a video of more recent versions of his Geminoid robots that duplicate real humans.

When we met last week we had a fascinating conversation, discussing the leading edge in robotics globally.

Prof. Ishiguro told me that the leading edge of his research is in creating robots with volition and intent. He observed that while in the West we are frightened of robots that have volition, this is far less of a concern in Japanese society.

In an interview he expands on this point:

“In Japanese culture we consider everything has a soul,” he said. “We never distinguish between humans and others. But in Europe and the United States, especially for Christians, they believe that only humans can have a soul, so that is the difference between humans and others.”

He says that robots are simply an extension of computers, technology that people once saw as potentially dangerous.

In fact, by combining technology and humanity and building robots, Ishiguro says we’re “projecting the human soul.”

He thinks robots can become human social partners — it’s all just a matter of belief.

“[My goal is] for a human to become believably affectionate towards a robot social partner. Belief is the single most important aspect of a human being. You believe that I am a human, right? The human brain is just guessing, perceiving and believing. Everything is just a kind of illusion, or a trick, because the human brain cannot process everything. Everything is subjective.”

He also believes that robots should be designed as human companions:

The most important aspect of an interactive robot is its role as a social partner for a human. A human can project many things onto a robot, so essentially studying a social relationship between a human and a robot will allow us to comment on general human society. We need to study phenomena that happen in ‘real society’ before we can discuss the possibility of integrating robots into society. Before it was mostly important to have practical robots, but now the next two challenges in robotics are three things. To minimise more, to use the human shape, and represent the human soul. Do you believe that we have a soul? This is why we build humanoid and telenoid robots: to project the human soul.

Prof. Ishiguro, as one of the world’s leading roboticists, in an unusual honor for living scientists, recently appeared on the cover of Science magazine.

He has striking and provocative views on the role of robots in society. He is also in a position to create the future of robots.

Look to his work to see the role robots may play in the future of human society.