Prof teaches robot twin to smoke

In the movie “Surrogates,” which opened in the U.S. last fall and came to Japan in January, humanoid robots have become so advanced, and so cheap, that most people stay home all day and send remote-controlled doppelgangers out to take care of their jobs, run their errands and even do their leisure activities. It may sound far-fetched, but Osaka University Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro has already sampled that lifestyle for real.

He calls his robot twin a “geminoid” (the movie calls them “surrogates”), and he has even taught it how to smoke by rigging an air compressor, which usually drives its pneumatic actuator muscles, to make the robot inhale. Prof. Ishiguro himself smokes, and when I interviewed him about his research earlier this year, he told me that since he works in a nonsmoking building, engineering his robot to smoke was a good excuse to get around the rules.

Science-fiction author David Brin has complained that the movie shows people using robot surrogates for very limited purposes, when in reality such a radical technology would be likely to have applications as varied as vicarious space travel and “Hyper-X-sports in which no one comes back ‘alive’!” Logically, he is correct, but I think the movie’s creators made a defensible artistic choice in focusing on a limited number of aspects of what a brave new robotic world might look like. (And in the film we do get a glimpse of an ad for a pro football game in which one surrogate player has just ripped off another one’s head.)

When I asked Ishiguro about this, he said that robot geminoids in a future society would be like cars in Japan today. Not everyone in Japan owns a car, and those who do own cars use them for many different purposes.

Find out what else Ishiguro had to say about his work on geminoid technology — and see a photo of him arm in arm with his robot twin –by reading my article here.

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