Humanoid and mechanical robots spur debate on their ideal designs

Robots like Toshiba’s are becoming so eerily realistic that they could be mistaken as human beings at first glance. She sings, smiles, raises her hands and has lifelike facial expressions controlled by 15 tiny pneumatic actuators.

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LAS VEGAS // She stood on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show, carried on conversations, blinked her eyes and sang a convincing rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads.

It would have been unremarkable if she were not a robot.

“Hello, my name is Chihira Aico. I am 32 years old, although, technically, I was born in September 2014. Look how expressive I am,” she said.

Robots like Toshiba’s are becoming so eerily realistic that they could be mistaken as human beings at first glance. She sings, smiles, raises her hands and has lifelike facial expressions controlled by 15 tiny pneumatic actuators.

These robots are increasingly being developed as personal assistants, companions, hosts and aides for medical situations.

“We made her like a human being because true communication is also based on facial expressions and gestures,” said Toshiba’s Taihei Yamaguchi.

Mr Yamaguchi said a robot such as Chihira Aico could serve as a hostess for the Olympic Games in 2020, but the robot design was meant for robots to assist in healthcare monitoring and diagnosis.

However, in Aico’s words: “In the future, I want to take up the challenge of a wide assignment of tasks: counsellor, newscaster, cheerleader, entertainer and many others.”

The speech was pre-programmed and it would take time to develop the kinds of science-fiction robots that could respond to language and move autonomously, Mr Yamaguchi said.

It is possible, as Toshiba showed, to develop robots that look like humans.

But there remains a debate whether robots should be designed as humanoids, like in the film Blade Runner, or as mechanical ones like in Star Wars.

Another vision of the robot, “Meccanoid”, from the toymaker Spin Master, has a body of polycarbonate Erector set pieces with large lamps for eyes. It, too, can speak from a pre-programmed text.

Some developers say that a non-human, playful design is more welcoming.

Jon-Michel Sereda at Five Elements Robotics said the company’s Budgee robot, a wheeled cylinder with an oval cartoon-like head on a stick, “looks friendly, not too robotic, scary looking or intimidating”.

The robot can follow someone and carry things, which can be useful for elderly people or hospital patients. “We built it with the idea of helping handicapped people in a wheelchair,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse