The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Robots for Real: The Amazing Androids of Hiroshi Ishiguro

To understand how the human mind works, a Japanese researcher is building androids that look just like real people

3 min read

This segment is part of "Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real."

In this special report, we meet some of the world’s most creative minds in robotics to find out how their robots will transform our lives—for real. “Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum magazine and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, aired on public radio stations across the United States.

Hosted by Susan Hassler and Ken Goldberg
Senior editor: Erico Guizzo

Robots for Real: The Amazing Androids of Hiroshi Ishiguro


Narrated by Joe Levine
Reported by Erico Guizzo

Joe Levine: The android leans against a high stool. She nods and gestures gracefully. She has long brown hair, glossy lips, and perfect skin. Inside her body are pneumatic actuators and advanced electronics. She is a beauty.

Hiroshi Ishiguro: This is Repliee Q2, and as you can see here, it's a female android.

Joe Levine: That's Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor of robotics at Osaka University, introducing us to one of his androids. Visiting his lab, you feel like you're taking a peek into the future: Robots are everywhere, and it seems like they want to talk to you.

Joe Levine: But Ishiguro is not trying to develop commercial androids. He doesn't want to understand just robots—he wants to understand humans.

Hiroshi Ishiguro: My research question is to know what is a human. Nobody knows what is a mind, or consciousness. But I have some hypotheses on that, and I want to verify my hypotheses by building a robot.

Joe Levine: Ishiguro says he is verifying his hypotheses about what is human, what is a mind, and what is consciousness by building robots.

Joe Levine: To design his first android, Ishiguro used his 4-year-old daughter as a model. The android looks realistic, but it can move only its head—which means Ishiguro's daughter wasn't very happy to see her robotic copy.

Hiroshi Ishiguro: Of course she was scared very much, because appearance was quite nice but movement was jerky, and she scared, right, almost cried.

Joe Levine: What Ishiguro found out is that people are very good at recognizing other people. He had to do better with his androids.

Joe Levine: Ishiguro has four labs and advises a dozen students. He's a busy man. He's also a bit of a character. He has a mop of dark hair, a big round face, perpetually furrowed eyebrows, and he always—always—dresses in black. Ishiguro loves sports cars and he's a big Rolling Stones fan.

Joe Levine: Ishiguro's most famous android is a copy of himself. He calls it the Geminoid. This robot doesn't have preprogrammed behavior like his other androids. Ishiguro can operate the Geminoid remotely with a computer that tracks his face. When Ishiguro moves his head, the Geminoid moves its head. When Ishiguro speaks, the Geminoid speaks.

Joe Levine: The most surprising thing about the Geminoid is when other people, not Ishiguro, teleoperate his android. Imagine that you are teleoperating the Geminoid. After a while, your brain starts to think that the Geminoid is part of your body. So what happens if, say, someone touches the Geminoid's cheek? Ishiguro says you will feel it!

Hiroshi Ishiguro: If operator is a girl or woman, so if I touch the Geminoid body, they say, "Yahh, don't touch to my body." Everybody can adapt to the Geminoid body.

Joe Levine: Ishiguro believes that humans and machines will eventually merge together, and we won't be able to distinguish between the two. Does that mean that one day, instead of spending time in interviews with reporters, Ishiguro will be able to send his android in his place?

Hiroshi Ishiguro: I am the android.

Joe Levine: I am Joe Levine.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less