There are roles for robots that we readily grasp when we think of the automated future: robot carers for the elderly, robot language teachers, even android other-halves; less science-fiction than extrapolations from familiar patterns of technology use. But robot actors? That’s the vision of Doctor Hiroshi Ishiguro who, in developing the roles of robots in society, sees no better laboratory in which to test the human qualities of robots than the stage. In collaboration with theatre director Oriza Hirata, Ishiguro’s lifelike androids and his charming, more traditional robots are starring in a North American theatre tour produced by the Japan Society. As far as Dr Ishiguro is concerned it’s like work experience for robots.
When I meet Ishiguro, I can’t help thinking he has the makings of a character in the James Bond franchise. Dressed head-to-toe in black, wearing tinted, frameless glasses, he could be an associate of Q, perhaps, or someone who hacks the secrets of the latest master-mind villain. But his day job is, in fact, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University and of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute. It’s there that he developed extremely lifelike androids and highly functioning robots, and where he met Hirata, who came to him with the idea of putting the robots on stage.
“I was delighted,” Ishiguro says. “I am always looking for practical applications for my androids and robots.” In his opinion, androids make perfect performers – they never forget their lines nor have an off night. “Androids require no rehearsals and they don’t complain.”
Ishiguro sees the stage as a fun new testing environment where he can not only learn about his robots but also about human behaviour. “The Robot Theater project helps me understand how a robot working in daily life can interact with people and be more human-like.”
For example, until he saw his android on stage, he hadn’t realized that gestures slightly precede speech. “I thought it would be the same time or slightly after the words, but in fact the gesture comes first,” he said demonstrating by stretching out his arm and saying the Japanese word for welcome.
He found in Oriza Hirata the perfect collaborator. A pioneer of the Quiet Theatre movement – which features very little action and emphasises quiet delivery, with actors speaking at almost conversational levels – Hirata is also a very precise director. “Most theatre directors speak in very abstract ways and use conceptual words,” says Ishiguro. “ But Oriza is like a computer program. He’ll tell a human actor to come forward 30 centimetres. I was very surprised, because he was treating humans like robots.”
Such precision is essential for the two plays in this tour. The first, Sayonara, written by Oriza, stars Geminoid F, an uncannily realistic, female, computer-operated android. She plays the artificial companion to Bryerly Long’s terminally ill young woman. The android’s job is to talk to Long’s character and comfort her with poetry that she will repeat flawlessly as often as requested.
Geminoid F’s role is pre-recorded and runs on a loop, but even so, it’s a shock when a robot repairman picks her up later in the play and her body remains in its seated position, limbs immobile. Geminoid F has 12 motorized actuators powered by air pressure, which allow her to make facial expressions, including moving her lips as if speaking. She can also incline her body slightly but, for now, these are the limits of her movements. “It would be dangerous for androids to walk,” explains Ishiguro. “They might fall over and break. But I’d love to get funding to make them move more.”
This version of Sayonara is an expanded version of the original 2010 play and includes a scene where Geminoid F is given a new job that can’t be done by humans in the area devastated by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. It’s the kind of practical application Ishiguro believes will be in his android’s real future.