Sun, Sep 29, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Japanese scientists envision a future where robots are ubiquitous

By Alastair Himmer  /  AFP, SEIKA, Japan

Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, right, and his assistant pose next to one of his robots at his research center in Osaka, Japan, on June 16.

Photo: AFP

Set in 2019, cult 1980s movie Blade Runner envisaged a neon-stained landscape of bionic “replicants” genetically engineered to look just like humans.

So far that has failed to materialize, but at a secretive research institute in western Japan, wild-haired roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro is fine-tuning technology that could blur the line between human and machine.

Highly intelligent, self-aware and helpful around the house — the robots of the future could look and act just like humans and even become their friends, Ishiguro and his team predict.

“I don’t know when a Blade Runner future will happen, but I believe it will,” the Osaka University professor told reporters.

“Every year we’re developing new technology — like deep learning, which has improved the performance of pattern recognition,” he said. “Now we’re focusing on intention and desire, and if we implement them into robots whether they become more human-like.”

Robots are already widely used in Japan — from cooking noodles to helping patients with physiotherapy.

Marketed as the world’s first “cyborg-type” robot, HAL (hybrid assistive limb) — developed by the University of Tsukuba and Japan-based Cyberdyne Inc — is helping people in wheelchairs walk again using sensors connected to the unit’s control system.

Scientists believe service robots will one day help humans with household chores, from taking out the garbage to making the perfect slice of toast.

Stockbrokers in Japan and around the world are already deploying artificial intelligence (AI) bots to forecast stock market trends and science fiction’s rapid advance toward science fact owes much to the likes of Ishiguro.

He previously created an android copy of himself — using complex moving parts, electronics, silicone skin and his own hair — that he sends on business trips in his place.

However, Ishiguro believes that recent breakthroughs in robotics and AI will accelerate the synthesis of human and machine.

“As a scientist, I hope to develop self-conscious robots like you see in Blade Runner to help me understand what it is to be human,” Ishiguro said. “That’s my motivation.”

The point at which that line between humans and machines converges has long been a source of anxiety for some, as depicted in popular culture.

In Blade Runner, Harrison Ford plays a police officer who tracks down and kills replicants that have escaped and are living among the population in Los Angeles.

The Terminator series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger centers on a self-aware computer network that initiates a nuclear holocaust and, through autonomous military machines, wages war against the remnants of humanity.

“I can’t understand why Hollywood wants to destroy robots,” said Ishiguro, who in 2007 was named one of the top 100 living geniuses by global consultants firm Synectics Ltd.

“Look at Japanese cartoons and animations — robots are always friendly. We have a totally different cultural background,” he added.

It is not just Hollywood that has concerns over AI.

Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk has called for a global ban on killer robots, warning that technological advances could revolutionize warfare and create new “weapons of terror” that target innocent people.

However, Ishiguro insisted that there is no inherent danger in machines becoming self-aware or surpassing human intelligence.

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