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Do geminoids dream of electric sheep?

Could you love a robot? Should you love a robot? Or, rather, a geminoid, as its creator, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, calls it. That’s one of the questions posed in Phie Ambo’s Mechanical Love.

Ishiguro and his evil twin

Ishiguro built his geminoid in his own image. Make of that what you will.

In fact, he coined the word “geminoid” from the Latin geminus, meaning “twin” or “double” and oid, which indicates “similarity”. And the damned thing does really look like him. If he were a robot, that is.

Apparently, he got the idea for this because he is so busy. He can’t be in two places at once, after all. So he built this copy of himself–sculpted from casts of his body–so that it could, say, sit in a meeting at the office while he was working elsewhere, and it would stand in for him as he spoke through it and manipulated it via remote control. ‘If I could have one at the university, and one at ATR, I would just do all my work from a hot-springs resort.’ Well, okay… it makes sense when he puts it that way. But he also wonders if people could come to have feelings for these things.

His thought was that something that looked like him and spoke in his voice could carry sonzai-kan, or “presence” in a way that his mere voice over a conference call couldn’t.

But I dunno… this thing made my skin crawl. I wouldn’t want it anywhere near me. When he introduces his young daughter to it for the first time–after having told the documentary film crew that he is certain that she will be able to accept it easier than an adult would–she shies away from it and doesn’t even want to look at it. She refuses to touch it and can’t wait to get the hell outta the room.

I can’t blame her. I mean, I don’t wanna pick it apart–it’s a remarkable piece of engineering–but the face simply does not work. And it looks like the “skin” is rubbery in a naaasty way. While we do see Ishiguro complain about an earlier version’s inability to form its lips to match the words he is speaking through them, the finished version looks no better. I can understand what he’s trying to achieve, but I don’t think he’s there yet. And, frankly, I don’t see how having this thing sitting in a room while he is manipulating it by remote control from elsewhere is somehow better than just being there via videoconferencing. Surely the image of the real person has more sonzai-kan than this bucket of bolts does. Or mebbe that’s just a film-lover’s opinion.

Anyway, this doppleganger is not the only robot in the film. There is also Paro.

Paro is what’s called a “mental committment robot”:

Unlike industrial robots, “Mental Commitment Robots” are developed to interact with human beings and to make them feel emotional attachment to the robots. Rather than using objective measures, these robots trigger more subjective evaluations, evoking psychological impressions such as “cuteness” and comfort. Mental Commitment Robots are designed to provide 3 types of effects: psychological, such as relaxation and motivation, physiological, such as improvement in vital signs, and social effects such as instigating communication among inpatients and caregivers.


Why a baby seal, you ask? Well, they tried it first as a cat. But the designers found that people are so familiar with cats that all they could see was how fake the kitty-Paro was. So they figured that fewer people were familar with baby harp seals… and they were right. People no longer focussed on what was “wrong” with it and focussed, instead, on how “cute” it was.

We see Paro introduced to nursing home resident Mrs. Körner who, while she knows it is not a real animal, nevertheless forms what appears to be a genuine emotional bond with it. To be honest, these sequences were really upsetting to me… The repulsion I felt towards Professor Ishiguro’s geminoid was nothing next to the horror of the thought of being so alone in this world that I have to resort to artificial companionship. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach as I watched this genuinely sweet lady cuddle this mewling thing, cooing to it and stroking its (fake) fur. It makes me cry, even now, just to think back on those sequences… It’s not that I think the good feelings it engendered in Mrs. Körner were a bad thing. Quite the contrary! But the thought that this is what we’ve come to makes me feel very sad for all of us.

This pet doesn't come with a box of poo

I think Ambo’s film is quite wonderful in that it could provoke such a strong emotional reaction from me. It is a fascinating subject told well–with humour and with empathy–and easily one of my favourites of Hot Docs ’08. See it if you get a chance.

→ originally published 2008-04-28


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