The cult film Blade Runner, set in 2019, provided a neon-stained landscape with bionic “replicants” that were genetically designed to look just like humans. So far this has not been successful, but at a secret research institute in western Japan, wild-haired robotics Hiroshi Ishiguro is a technology that can blur the line between man and machine. Very intelligent, self-assured and helpful throughout the house – the robots of the future can look like people and even become their friends, Ishiguro and his team predict.
“I don’t know when a Blade Runner future will happen, but I believe so,” the professor from Osaka University told AFP.
“Every year we develop new technology – such as deep learning, which has improved the performance of pattern recognition,” he added.
“Now we focus on intention and desire, and if we implement them in robots, or they become more human.”
Robots are already widely used in Japan – from cooking noodles to helping patients with physical therapy.
Marketed as the world’s first “cyborg-type” robot, HAL (hybrid auxiliary limb) – developed by Tsukuba University and the Japanese company Cyberdyne – helps people in wheelchairs to walk again using sensors connected to the operating system of the unit.
Scientists believe that service robots will one day help us with household chores, from throwing away the trash to making the perfect slice of toast.
Stock brokers in Japan and around the world are already using AI bots to predict trends in the stock market, and the rapid progress of science fiction toward science facts owes much to Ishiguro.
He previously made an Android copy of himself – with the help of complex moving parts, electronics, silicone skin and his own hair – which he sent on his business trips.
“Wake up, time to die”
But Ishiguro believes that recent breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence will speed up the synthesis of man and machine.
“As a scientist, I hope to develop self-aware robots as you see them in Blade Runner to help me understand what it’s like to be human,” he said. “That is my motivation.”
The point at which that line between man and machine comes together has long been a source of fear, as depicted in popular culture.
In Blade Runner, Harrison Ford plays a police officer who locates and kills replicants who have escaped and live among the population in Los Angeles.
The Terminator series with Arnold Schwarzenegger is set on a self-aware computer network that initiates a nuclear holocaust and wages war against human survivors through autonomous military machines.
“I don’t understand why Hollywood wants to destroy robots,” Ishiguro picked up, who was named one of the top 100 living geniuses in 2007 by global consulting firm Synectics.
“Look at Japanese cartoons and animations – robots are always friendly. We have a totally different cultural background,” the professor noted.
It’s not just Hollywood that worries about AI.
Eles Musk from Tesla has called for a worldwide ban on killer robots. He warned that technological progress could revolutionize warfare and create new “weapons of terror” aimed at innocent people.
But Ishiguro maintains that there is no inherent danger of machines becoming self-aware or surpassing human intelligence.
“We don’t have to be afraid of AI or robots, the risk is manageable,” he said. “My basic idea is that there is no difference between people and robots.”
The ultimate goal, according to Ishiguro’s colleague Takashi Minato, is “to bring robots into society as human companions – it is possible that robots will become our friends”.
But will they resemble us, as Ishiguro believes, and how comfortable do we feel surrounded by autonomous hominids?
Japanese robotics Masahiro Mori suggested in 1970 that the more robots look like people, the weirder they are – a phenomenon he called “the creepy valley.”
Ishiguro’s first attempt to make an Android clone was based on his daughter and her “jerky movements” brought her to tears.
Since then, he has perfected the template, including a creation that he claimed to be the world’s first news-reading android and a robot priest in a Kyoto temple unveiled earlier this year.
Minato shares the visionary ideas of his boss.
“Hopefully the technology for remote control will develop so that our alter egos can lead a normal life,” he said.
“Like in the movie ‘Surrogates’ – that would make life easier,” he added, referring to the sci-fi Bruce Willis hit in which people cocooned at home through robot avatars.
Although he will not release a date for a real Blade Runner future, Ishiguro claims that the rise of the machines has already begun.
“In some cases, computers are already more powerful than people,” he said. “Technology is just another means of evolution. We are changing the definition of what it is to be human.”