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Increasingly human-like robots spark fascination and fear

Robots look set to coexist with humans, especially in aging societies, but rights groups are already raising concerns over ‘killer robots,’ while many people are irked by seeing faces on machines

By Clara Wright  /  AFP, MADRID

A robot called Erica produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories is displayed at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots in Madrid on Friday.

Photo: AFP

Sporting a trendy brown bob, a humanoid robot named Erica chats to a man in front of stunned audience members in Madrid.

She and others like her are a prime focus of robotic research, as their uncanny human form could be key to integrating such machines into our lives, said researchers gathered this week at the annual International Conference on Intelligent Robots.

“You mentioned project management. Can you please tell me more?” Erica, who is playing the role of an employer, asked the man.

She might not understand the conversation, but she has been trained to detect key words and respond to them.

A source of controversy due in part to fears for human employment, the presence of robots in our daily lives is nevertheless inevitable, engineers at the conference said.

The trick to making them more palatable is to make them look and act more human so that we accept them into our lives more easily, they added.

In aging societies, “robots will coexist with humans sooner or later,” said Hiroko Kamide, a Japanese psychologist who specializes in relations between humans and robots.

Welcoming robots into households or workplaces involves developing “multipurpose machines that are capable of interacting” with humans without being dangerous, said Philippe Soueres, head of the robotics department at a laboratory belonging to France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

As such, robots must move around “in a supple way,” despite their rigid mechanics and stop what they are doing in case of any unforeseen event, he added.

That is why people are choosing “modular systems shaped like human bodies,” which are meant to easily fit into real-world environments built for humans.

For instance, Atlas, a humanoid robot made by Boston Dynamics, can run on different types of surfaces.

In Madrid, Marc Raibert, founder of the US firm, played a video showing Atlas doing a backflip.

In a sign of fears over the potential uses for these humanoids, Amnesty International has accused Atlas, financed by the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, of being a “killer robot” made for warfare.

Another example of humanoids presented in Madrid was Talos, a robot made by Spanish company Pal Robotics SL shown testing his stability on a balance board.

While it might not be the only form used for those coming into contact with humans, “it’s easier for people to accept the robots when they have human-like faces, because people can expect how the robots will move, will react,” Kamide said.

That is comforting, but it also has its limits.

Japanese researcher Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” theory, which he developed in the 1970s, states that we react positively to robots if they have physical features familiar to us, but they disturb us if they start looking too much like us.

“You can’t ever make a perfect human face” and this imperfection provokes a feeling of “rejection” among humans, said Miguel Salichs, a professor at the robotics lab of Madrid’s Carlos III University.

As such, he chose to fashion his robot Mini Maggie into a small cartoon animal.

In Japan, robots like Erica are already used as receptionists.

However, for one of their makers, Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, humanoids are above all “a very important tool to understand humans.”

Researchers have to think hard about the human form and how humans interact to develop robots that look like them.

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