Toshiba Android Will Take You for a Trip Down the Uncanny Valley

Image: Toshiba

All aboard for another trip down the Uncanny Valley!

At the CEATEC Japan electronics trade show in October, Toshiba trotted out what it calls a “lifelike communication android,” though perhaps the term lifelike is a bit generous. The android, named Aiko Chihiro, is similar to others we’ve seen at labs and trade events. While certain parts of the robot look quite good, such as the hair, I found that, as I watched Aiko move, it didn’t take long for my Uncanny Valley instincts to kick in.

To many people, androids like Aiko raise the question: Should we build robots that look exactly like people? That issue has generated a lot of debate among roboticists. Masahiro Mori, the Japanese researcher who came up with the Uncanny Valley concept, has said robot designers should avoid developing robots whose appearances approach that of a person.

For Toshiba, the Aiko android is a departure from its earlier assistive and communication robots, which were featureless plastic blobs with large, bulbous eyes. About 10 years ago the company was toying with the idea of a robot nanny called ApriAttenda [pictured below] that would autonomously follow an elderly person throughout their day to keep an eye on them. That prototype was upgraded in 2009 to have arms and hands capable of opening a microwave to retrieve a heated meal tray. But it’s unclear whether the company is still pursuing that idea.

More recently, Toshiba’s robotics division has focused on helping with the clean up of the Fukushima nuclear plant by building a quadruped that can climb stairs and deliver a smaller robot to scope hard to reach places. (Unfortunately there hasn’t been much in the way of details about progress on these projects, despite CEATEC being the perfect place to fill us in on what that robot is doing, if anything at all, at the disaster site.)

The new android Aiko was developed with the help of Osaka University, which has been working with animatronic androids for more than a decade, as well as aLab Inc., the Shibaura Institute of Technology, and Shonan Institute of Technology. Aiko uses a total of 43 actuators to move its face and limbs, though the majority of the work seems to be done by the servos in its arms, hands, and fingers. That’s because the robot communicates through simple sign language, requiring articulated fingers, a detail often overlooked in previous androids.

Toshiba says the goal is to build a kind of telepresence robot that counselors and doctors can use to communicate with elderly patients suffering from dementia by 2020. But is the robot suited for that job? The unsettling specter of a lifeless mannequin that doesn’t quite blink so much as twitch its eyelids and that swings its arms with all the grace of a museum animatronic character, suggests to me that it will be more than five years before Aiko can take on that job.

But not to worry; in the mean time, Toshiba said it plans to set up Aiko as a receptionist. Personally, I’d prefer a  featureless plastic blob with big eyes.

[ Toshiba ]

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