It’s 7pm in Osaka, Japan, and Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro looks in need of a nightcap. Hyperactive to the point of distraction, he zips around his apartment seemingly wired on life. One minute, the esteemed roboticist is pacing the living room floor in search of wisdom. The next, he is nervously pulling a blind up and down, peering out of a window into a void of pitch-black infinity. The man can’t settle.
“I don’t have a life outside work,” he muses, “all the time working”. In the course of our conversation he has barely sat down once and clearly finds it difficult to relax. This nervous disposition is less about uncertainty and more about obsession—not OCD, but the behaviour of someone whose primary instinct is to be understood. The erratic moves and repetitive gestures are out of the ordinary to say the least; but then again, there is nothing ordinary about this man.
Some things I know about Hiroshi Ishiguro: He drives a black Porsche (very fast, by all accounts), listens to eighties metal rockers the Scorpions, and, like many of his countrymen, is fond of the odd whiskey. He is also supremely intelligent, as one might expect from the mind behind one of the 21st century’s greatest innovations. Ishiguro, a kind of Dr Frankenstein for the android generation, is the creator of robots so realistic, so lifelike in their rendering, that humans react to them in a way which is altering our perceptions of what they are capable of. His unique work tells us about our relationship to non-human entities, how robots and humans can stand side by side.
“I want to understand what a human is. I’m very curious about how the mind works. My reasons are different to, say, neuroscience. My approach is to focus on intelligence and consciousness and emotions. To understand cognitive function I created a very human-like robot, and if we sense intelligence from the robot we may understand something about how the human functions.”
I want to understand what a human is. I’m very curious about how the mind works.
Ishiguro’s research facility—ATR—is a unique and compelling environment. Over the past two decades, he has constructed a series of doppelgänger androids which have increased in sophistication as technology has improved. His first notable breakthrough was achieved when he replicated his then-four-year-old daughter, although he is most famous for building his own likeness, the vaguely disturbing Geminoid™ HI-1, a robot so physically similar to the man it is moulded on it is uncanny.
Many of those who come into contact with Ishiguro’s family of replicants find the uncanniness alarming. Hence the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’, when humanoid objects which resemble real human beings promote feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. But there is method in his madness. The automatons he has so brilliantly engineered are not a digital freak show, but important tools invented for the greater good of society. They appear to elicit feelings of joy from those with dementia, and can deliver lectures at universities, in fact the professor thinks that one day humans and robots will be indistinguishable.
“Look at handicapped people with prosthetics,” he says with authority. “Having a fully functioning body is not a requirement to be a human being. We can define human without talking about flesh and bodies. Even if we use totally mechanical bodies we can still be human, so the boundaries between a robot and humans is going to be very ambiguous. These boundaries are going to easily disappear.”
He claims his robots promote the Japanese concept of Sonzai-Kan, the feeling of being in the presence of another human being. “Have you ever touched an android robot? Once you touch the android you are going to feel a very human-like presence. This is Sonzai-Kan. My robots are totally different from all the other mechanical-looking robots and androids out there. We can make a very strong human likeness from the appearance and movement. I want Sonzai-Kan from being in the presence of my robots.”
He denies it, but within the field of robotics this intriguing figure has attained a kind of rock star status. He certainly looks the part. With his allblack attire and hexagonal spectacles, he might once have played keyboards in Nippon-Wave synth band, the Yellow Magic Orchestra. And the hair! Beatleesque in style and shade, it crowns an angular face that is part cartoon villain, part key-holder to world order. Tending to his locks with considered regularity, nimble fingers draw his black fringe away from his forehead, creating a look that owes more to Lennon than Yoko. “In Japan I’m just a normal—well, maybe not normal—person,” he puffs. “I’m known for being a researcher but not a rock star. Rock‘n’roll is not Japanese culture, it’s American culture.”
He might deflect this public perception as nonsense, but Ishiguro knows the importance of self-promotion. “My research is not science, but it’s important to advertise my activities. What I’m doing is robotics, right? Robots need to be used in society if we are to accept the robot, otherwise I cannot create a robot society in the future. I need to do two things—understanding people and understanding new technologies. This is the difference from pure science.”
And which is the easier to understand? “Well, robots can be much better partners for the people. I mean, we can trust a robot.”
The way Ishiguro talks about his craft, if one calls the complexity and vision of his research pure craft, is alarmingly deep. Not only does he believe in the concept of the ‘ghost in the machine’, he thinks that robots, for all intents and purposes, have souls too. “We have very different ideas here in Japan,” he reasons. “We believe that everything—bottles, desks, chairs—everything has a soul. What you have to remember is that Japan is a non-hierarchical society. We are very homogenous here and are more about big families, and in the family we never distinguish between family members and pet cats and dogs. Everything equally has a soul, that is the idea.”
Ishiguro is a ponderous soul who forges a link between robotics and its nexus to philosophy and art. He emphasises more than once this evening that his prime motivating instinct is to know what it means to be human. “In the future, we may have a robot society,” he says. “That in itself is a kind of philosophy, because the robot is there to reflect humanity. Everyone will have a chance to think about what it is to be human.”
On a fundamental level, is this a futurist’s take on Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’? Might a robot be able to look at life like this at some point? “That is more my goal. I strongly hope to have that kind of self-recognisable robot. I like those ideas but I’m not working on this yet because it’s not so easy. We are starting from more basic ideas, but this concept is our primary goal.”
How does such a focused man relax? “Many many things. I’m watching the peoples and having this kind of conversation with many kinds of peoples. Always I’m taking the memorandums! That’s the basis of my work. I’m a little sick actually because I just can’t stop thinking about these things!”
He’s laughing, but what does actually scare him? Is there anything that keeps the professor awake at night? “Age!” he cries. “My brain is quite active but when I get old my brain’s activity is going down. And that will be quite scary then. That’s my fear.”
Many people fear technology. The very thing that drives Ishiguro. “I have a theory about that. People fear future technologies but people always accept them eventually. Look at Google Home. It’s always listening to our voice and answering our questions. Do you know anyone who’s afraid of Google Home now? If I said to people in the future that robots will be watching you and hearing your voice and transmitting your voice to others, they would be nervous, but they will get used to it.”
Ishiguro does, however accept that society can be technophobic. The human condition and the way people think can be against advancement. “People are frightened but advancing technology is a chance to be stronger. It’s the power that that technology might hold that frightens them.”
People are frightened but advancing technology is a chance to be stronger. It’s the power that that technology might hold that frightens them.
We muse on the potential power of Ishiguro’s robots. While they are undoubtedly an important tool, there are doubters who find them quite sinister. “People are afraid of comparing androids to humans, right? If the person is less than the android, they may lose their values as a human. That is many ordinary people’s concerns. But they don’t know what kind of future we have. A good relationship between robots and humans will be like the kind of relationship computers have with humans today. They need to have time to adapt and accept the new technology, that’s all.”
New technology, especially the world of robotics, is something Ishiguro knows all about. He only watches movies on long haul flights, but even then it is hard to switch off. Bladerunner 2049 and Ghost In The Shell have both met with his approval, which means a lot to the production crews making them. “All these people ask me to comment on their movies. Disney and lots of other movie companies ask me to verify the technology they are using.”
But that is science fiction, and you are science fact. “I hope so,” he says, half grinning, “I really hope so”.
Happy to talk about his achievements, Ishiguro believes that opening up a conversation is key to public acceptance. He is a serious chap—a philosopher, and rigid academic, so his opinions and hypotheses are delivered with no nonsense intent. We talk about the possibilities that lay ahead. What remains the most important aspect of his work?
“When I’m designing a robot,” he says, almost wistfully, “I try to reflect humanity on the canvas”.
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