A new exhibition in Tokyo explores what it means to be human.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is quite possibly Philip K. Dick’s most famous work – a science fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic near future, subsequently forming the primary basis for the 1982 film, Blade Runner. The film depicts a dystopian world in 2019 in which genetically engineered replicants, which are visually indistinguishable from adult humans, are manufactured by the powerful Tyrell Corporation as well as by other “mega-corporations” around the globe.
Now, in 2014, we are just a mere five years away from the date portrayed in Scott’s adaptation. So does that mean we are also close to creating the Nexus-6 brain model androids seen in the book and film? No. Not even close. But that’s not to say there haven’t been radical advances in humanoid robotics over the last number of years.
Some of these advances are now on display at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) here in Tokyo. Premiered back in June – and now on permanent display – this exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to communicate with and operate android robots, while shedding light on the attributes of humans in contrast with their futuristic counterparts. Three androids, Kodomoroid, Otonaroid and Telenoid, created by a team of scientists at the Osaka University led by professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, have been “hired” to make announcements and interact with people visiting the museum.
“Making androids is about exploring what it means to be human, […] examining the question of what is emotion, what is awareness, what is thinking.”
— Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro
Telenoid (pictured above) is a teleoperated android robot with a minimal design, created as an attempt to embody the minimum physical requirements for humanlike communication. At the exhibition, you can talk with it and also operate it. Compared to other androids on display which aim to be as lifelike as possible, the design of Telenoid omits specific human physical features, such as a physique and face. This robot, with its neutral appearance, enables people who communicate with it to feel that they are with anyone they wish.
Alongside Telenoid is Kodomoroid – a teleoperated android robot resembling a human child. It can recite news reports gathered from around the world 24 hours a day, every day, in a variety of voices and languages.
While we may be a long way away from creating replicants that need to be hunted down and “retired” by special police operatives known as “Blade Runners”, this exhibition is a fascinating look at the progress that is being made – and deserves nothing short of the permanent display status it has been allocated. Recommended. Take a look at some short clips I shot below.
Android: What is Human? is now on permanent display at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. Entrance to the museum costs just ¥620. (Don’t forget to get there early to get tickets for the Planetarium show.) Map here.