Robots have crept into all the markets whizzing ahead of
humans, in what experts call the next big industrial revolution. Japan has
always stood out at the forefront of robotics and has made its intention of
becoming the robotic superpower clear. It has the most number of robots in the
world and is also set to invest US$1.2 billion in robotics research.

Robots are taking over many jobs in Japan and in 10 to 20
years, they could even replace half of the working population. How will they
look like, if more and more robots are deployed for human work?

A programme, “Why It Matters” by Channel NewsAsia discovered
that robot appearances are designed based on common biases as people have
specific ideas about how their replacement should look like while many think
these are personal choices.

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 Ms Yukiko
Nakagawa, the founder of Robot Technology Corp, believes that the only way
robots can become man’s best friend is if they look like animals instead of
humans. And according to her, the Human-like robots have doll-like expressions
and when human skin is put on a robot, and if it works well, humans consider
the robot as a rival for jobs. The cat-shaped robot
Nekotencho, one of her most successful robots can be seen greeting customers
outside the company’s retail shop at the world-famous electronics town

you think of cats, you can accept their strange behaviour – jumping, dancing
and much other strange behaviour. It’s the same for this cat robot,” said Ms
Nakagawa, who has devoted her life to the robotics industry.

For example, at Tokyo’s Henn-na Hotel, the
world’s first robot-run hotel – with the largest concentration of robots in a
single hotel – guests are checked in by teeth-baring velociraptor robots
occupying the front desk. The hotel’s receptionist and robot resource
manager, Saki Kato who is one of the very few human staff at the facility, spoke
about the need to have robots as co-workers as the population and the number of
working adults in Japan is decreasing. She even added that the guests’
responses to the dinosaur robots were largely positive.

“The raptors are more
popular than the humanoid,” she said. “We’re humans, and we see humans every
day. We’ve never seen real dinosaurs … Everyone loves dinosaurs, well except
children may be! When the automated doors open, the children cry when they see
the Tyrannosaurus rex robot. Some even said they’d rather stay outside the
hotel,” she laughed.

Some roboticists think,
robots need not look like humans to bridge the gap between man and machine.
This is because of the concept coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori, the Uncanny
Valley.  He held that as robots become
almost human-like, people develop a sense of unease about them, but that their
feelings change if the robot is exactly like a human.

Mr Takashi Minato, one
of the programmers at the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka University,
the leading robot laboratory in Japan, thinks it is important for a robot
communicating with humans to look like one too.

“You can’t have a natural conversation with a
speaker or a smartphone … A human-like appearance results in a different
experience in the conversation,” he said.

One of the lab’s most impressive robots is
Erica, a humanoid that is able to engage people in conversation. It speaks in a
synthesised voice, can make various facial expressions and gestures like a

Erica can be put to
work as a receptionist at a hotel or hospital or even as an English teacher.

“In a conversation between two humans, we get
a lot of information from the person’s gaze, expressions or gestures,” said Mr
Minato. “Robots like Erica are a kind of bridge between humans and devices.” 

in Singapore, Professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, the director of the
Institute for Media Innovation at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), would
rather interact with a human-like robot than any random-shaped one.

One of her creations is social robot Nadine, made in her likeness. It was developed in
2015 as part of a project to address manpower needs in the administrative and
healthcare sectors.

“If we need partners in life to help us … it’s
very important that they look like humans and function exactly like humans,”
said Prof Thalmann.

For Professor Tatsuya
Nomura from Ryukoku University’s Department of Media Informatics, the bigger
problem is not the debate about how human robots should look; it is about the
gender stereotyping of robots.

Having spent decades studying the relationship
between man and machines, he believes that the assignment of gender to robots
is a controversial issue because it may produce gender stereotypes.

have a stereotype that receptionists should be female … But receptionists
needn’t be female. 

“A male can also conduct the tasks of a
receptionist,” he said. “This type of gender stereotype can cause similar
problems in every country.”

“Some robotics
designers use these gender stereotypes (when they design robots) in order to
smoothen the interaction between humans and robots. This is because these
gender stereotypes reduce our communicative burdens,” he noted.

In other words, making robots human-like and
gendered could trap men and women in the stereotypical roles from which these
robots could free them.

In Singapore, the lifelike Nadine is now
working as a receptionist in NTU. When asked if this reinforces gender
stereotypes, Prof Thalmann said receptionists are women in most cases, but that
a male receptionist robot should perhaps be made next.

“We should educate people. We should take this
opportunity to have maybe mostly female security guard robots,” she added.

“We should just make the contrary of (what) it
is today … Then people get educated. It’s also a way to change the stereotypes
and not continue them.”




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