Humanoid Robots: From Fiction to Reality

Morgane Leonard from Finn Partners France discusses the latest humanoid robot and just how far science and technology can go...

Over the decades we’ve become increasingly fascinated with artificial intelligence and the evolution of robotics. Hitting the headlines recently was the news that Toshiba had introduced a humanoid robot named Chihira Aico at CES 2015. Chihira is a 32 year-old “lady” and is able to talk to humans, communicating through sign language. Toshiba plans to develop Chihira to the point where, by 2020, it will be able to act as a guide for foreign visitors during Tokyo’s Summer Olympic Games.  There’s no doubt it represents a step forward in terms of technological development, but such advancements are also beginning to raise a number of questions and concerns with regards to ethics –  how far can science and innovation can go without crossing over to the dark side? 

When I read about all of this it reminds me of Bicentennial Man, a movie released in 1999, in which the late Robin Williams played a robot called Andrew.  Andrew joins a family to carry out its housekeeping and maintenance work, but the family soon realises that, unexpectedly, Andrew is able to identify emotions and eventually evolves so much that, after 200 years of fighting for its rights, becomes human. 

It’s been just over fifteen years since the film was released, yet the subject is still hugely topical today. For example, you may have seen the recent Swedish TV drama, Real Humans, where a community of consumer-level humanoid robotic workers and servants live among humans. Or perhaps you have seen the futuristic film, Elysium, which depicts a highly technologically advanced world, where medical machines are able to cure any disease, reverse the aging process (goodbye Botox!) and regenerate new body parts. 

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Despite being science fiction, all these stories deal with a wide range of contemporary issues, such as humanity, slavery, prejudice, maturity, intellectual freedom, conformity, sex, love and mortality.  All of which are topics that come into play when these technologies – or even just the idea of them – are presented to us.

As we begin to see the technology develop, merging reality and fiction, it could certainly be a daunting prospect – but only if you look at it in black and white.  Technological evolution is a good thing and some technology can make people’s lives better, like Xbox Kinect technology which can be used for surgery, while 3D printing can assist medical innovations.

It may take a while until we see the full force, but Chihira is “living” proof that humanoids are not just a product of the mind.  Over the next few years innovations like this will increasingly become part of our lives – likely in ways that we couldn’t begin to fathom yet. Who knows, 50 years from now we could have the ability to fall in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, just like Spike Jonze's recent film, Her. Which raises yet more questions about how technology will impact loneliness and isolation – but that will be the subject of another blog post! 

Ready to meet Chihira? Watch the video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BRycib5lWI