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Androids to bring 'Surrogates' closer to reality?

Osaka University's Hiroshi Ishiguro has created a female android that's more lifelike and low-cost than earlier models. Geminoid F may find work as a receptionist.

AFP Photo/Yoshikazu Tsuno

Japanese engineers have created a female android that's an exact replica of a woman while being cheaper and more compact than earlier models, bringing the futuristic world of the film "Surrogates" closer to reality.

The Geminoid F is an air servo-powered, remote-operated talking humanoid with eye, mouth, head, and shoulder mobility. She was designed by Osaka University's Hiroshi Ishiguro, ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, and Kokoro, a Tokyo-based entertainment firm. Copies of Geminoid are to go on sale for about $110,000, Ishiguro was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Geminoid F (F stands for "female") is a replica of an unnamed model, a woman in her twenties at right in the photo (see more pics here).

The robot is designed to mimic human behavior and possibly serve in roles like receptionist, museum guide, or patient attendant in hospitals, according to Kokoro. She's slated to begin patient communication trials at the University of Tokyo Hospital in May. Kokoro says patients have already reacted favorably.

Compared with Ishiguro's first Geminoid HI-1 robot, in which he replicated himself in android form, Geminoid F has fewer servomotors (only 12 compared with HI-1's 46), meaning it was significantly cheaper to produce.

Kokoro wants to sell 50 Geminoid Fs to museums and hospitals, according to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. It has already offered to produce customized android clones to the public for about $225,000 apiece.

Ishiguro's Geminoid HI-1 was unveiled in 2006. Tim Hornyak

The latest Geminoid also downsizes the system, incorporating the air servo valves and control system into the android itself, and runs off a household power supply. It will still use a small external air compressor.

Cameras and face-tracking software follow the remote operator's behavior, allowing the android to mimic its user in a sort of master-slave relationship via Internet link. Geminoid can't walk, though, and giving locomotion to a robot running on an air servo system is a major challenge.

Geminoid F's female appearance and more natural smile with lifelike teeth are designed to put people at ease. In a reflection of Kokoro's plans to market the system overseas, the model on which Geminoid is based is one-quarter non-Japanese, ostensibly giving her a more universal look. The robot is also quite fashionable, sporting duds by designer Junko Koshino.

At a press conference in Osaka, Geminoid spoke to reporters and demonstrated how she can be remote-controlled. "It feels like I'm over there speaking to you," her model said, speaking through the android.

No doubt it will take time for people to get used to Geminoids if they ever become a viable product. When I attended the unveiling of the first generation back in 2006, I spoke to Ishiguro through his clone. Conversing with the doppelganger was a bizarre sensation, but I felt compelled to maintain eye contact with the android while chatting.

We're neurologically hardwired to react to these puppets as though they're human beings. Once they start walking around, things will get very interesting.

(Via IEEE Spectrum, Mainichi Shimbun)