Being Hiroshi

After HRI’10 in Osaka I gave a talk at ATR’s Intelligent Robotics and Communication Labs, the place where Geminoid, Hiroshi Ishiguro’s doppelgänger robot lives. The visit was excellent and I really enjoyed my talk and the lab tour.

Meeting Geminoid after my talk was an interesting experience. I hadn’t expected it to affect me all that much, but the feeling I had during walking up to the robot was horribly similar to walking into an open casket wake; something felt off and it was a social situation I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with. Touching Geminoid felt strange, especially since you wouldn’t do the same to the real Hiroshi – in my mind he was around, watching.

Talking with Geminoid (or rather, his Wizard-of-Ozzing PhD’ers) was nice enough, but I must say I like the real Hiroshi better, at least he can smile and do things, well, autonomously. Being Hiroshi was actually the most interesting part of the experience. All of a sudden I was supposed to be a Japanese professor. My voice seemed oddly out of place and I couldn’t quite master the control of my remote body. But more importantly, I was painfully aware that I was trying to play someone I’ve talked to, had dinner with and had been a panelist at our HRI Young Pioneers workshop a couple of days earlier. Claiming the remote body as my own was impossible – it was Hiroshi’s, not mine.

Exactly that the whole experience was both fascinating and uncomfortable is what is so interesting to me about the HRI community as a whole. Projects that on first glance seem excessively techie, or hobby-ish, can actually invoke an incredible range of questions on for example body image, self-representation, persuasion, social structures and (remote) communication. But while a lot of HRI projects are hugely inspiring and fascinating, they also raise doubts. Is their future actually my future? Are ‘we’ missing something – or I am missing something? Are we excessively focusing on humanoid robots? Where are the design community representatives? Considering that the industry robots presented at HRI were most impressive, what exactly is the role of academic researchers? Which questions are most relevant? HRI has been a great (if somewhat odd) experience every time I’ve attended, and obviously there is no one answer to where we should be heading, but a meta-discussion appears in order.

Trying to solve all of this in a blog post -by a lowly postdoc no less- seems a tad bit too ambitious, but I look forward to (even more) discussion. And, since the post is already a tad bit gloomy: go enjoy Christoph Bartneck’s excellent talk on life in academia vs. industry at our HRI young pioneers workshop – depressing, but insightful.

More pictures of fancy robots, and (un)academic academics hanging out in Japan: Flickr.

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