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Greet robots as friends, not as foes

China Daily | Updated: 2019-09-25 09:47

This photo taken in June shows an assistant to engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro "talking" with a robot at a research center in Osaka, Japan. [Photo/Agencies]

Scientists believe they will one day help us with household chores

SEIKA, Japan - Set in 2019, the 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 robotics engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro is fine-tuning technology that could blur the line between man 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 said.

"Every year we're developing new technology - like deep learning, which has improved the performance of pattern recognition.

"Now we're focusing on intention and desire, and if we implement them into robots, they may become more humanlike."

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 Tsukuba University and Japanese company Cyberdyne - is helping people in wheelchairs walk again using sensors connected to the unit's control system.

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

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

He 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.

But Ishiguro believes breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence will accelerate the synthesis of man and machine.

"I hope to develop self-conscious robots like you see in Blade Runner to help me understand what it is to be human," he said.

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.

'Always friendly'

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 human survivors.

"I can't understand why Hollywood wants to destroy robots," shrugged Ishiguro, who in 2007 was named one of the top 100 living geniuses by global consultancy Synectics. "Look at Japanese cartoons and animations - robots are always friendly."

Ishiguro insists there is no inherent danger in machines becoming self-aware or surpassing human intelligence.

The ultimate goal, according to Ishiguro's colleague Takashi Minato, is "to bring robots into society as human companions - it's possible for robots to become our friends".

But will they look like us, as Ishiguro believes, and how comfortable will we feel surrounded by autonomous humanoids?

"Technology is just another means of evolution," Ishiguro said. "We are changing the definition of what it is to be human."


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