Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When Is A Human Not A Human?

Another look into the Japanese robotics industry, but this time on the more human side of things.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Image Credit: Osaka University  Geminoid F developed by Osaka University and ATR
So once again we return to the mystical land of Japan, where robotics and intelligence research company Kokoro Co. Ltd and ATR have made a huge stride in human-robot interactions. Its newest product is a modification of the company's Actroid robot series which has been on the market for quite some time now. The new Actroid-F series is a more cost-effective, weight reducing, size limiting version of the previous design with even more life-like facial features. It has been voted as the world's first "true android avatar" by Guinness World Records. What does that mean exactly?

The new robot design isn't completely unique, but it does improve substantially on some weaknesses of the previous designs. Primarily, all the servos, controls, and wiring are incorporated into the robot's frame so unlike previous versions, only a computer is needed to allow remote operation. State-of-the-art facial recognition software is also being used to pick up on the facial features and movements of the user; its similarity to the Kinect is evident, especially when user movements are transmitted to the robot in real time. The method of control really is similar to what was used in the movie Avatar, (hence the name of the Guinness award category), where a human host would use a computer interface to control the body of a large blue Kevin Costner. I can imagine that eventually this technology would develop into something similar, except with Japanese androids in place of said creatures.

What's even more astounding is the absolutely stunning facial expressions on the Actroid-F. It really does mimic human facial features quite well, a feature that past robots have had trouble with. Previous humanoid androids had an obvious problem with the Uncanny Valley effect. This hypothesis states that as robot appearance and behaviour mimics actual human appearance and behaviour more closely (almost to the point of exact duplication), our minds start picking up on whatever small cues exist that make the robot not-human. This usually leads to a sense of revulsion or unease in the human observer as we start trying to find faults with the robot's humanity. Here's an example of what the effect describes, I challenge anyone to look at this interactive CGI woman and not feel a slight sense of unease:

The Actroid-F seems to be getting a lot better at reducing the uncanny effect associated with robots. In my opinion it has done this by creating very fluid and accurate fine muscle movements. I don't know about you, but I was creeped out far less after having watched the entire video.

We still have a long way to go in terms of making more life-like androids for human interaction, but for not being anywhere nearly as scary as the flash animation was, and for making a huge leap in terms of facial movements (seriously, just look at the smirks and frowns again!), this robot gets a 5 star rating from SBMWS' certified android review panel.

To learn more about the company's Actroid-F series, visit the website here 
and here
To visit ATR, the company behind the intelligence software and interaction capabilities, click here

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