Robots that can trace patterns in the sand are all very well, but when will we see ones that look — and behave — just like we do?

That’s what Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro specialises in, and he demonstrated his latest creation at the Tokyo Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation earlier this month.

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‘Erica’ is part of the Symbiotic Human Robot Interaction Project, looking at how we might interact with robots using speech. In addition to responding to questions using natural-sounding language (which includes some non-verbal sounds), Erica also simulates certain human expressions and mannerisms in an attempt to appear ‘human’.

For all ‘her’ robotic prowess, however, there's still obviously something ‘not quite right’ about Erica — although you might be hard placed to put it into words. That phenomenon is called the ‘uncanny valley’ and it describes a dip in the curve that represents how ‘natural’ a human-shaped object looks.

The uncanny valley. Image credit: Wikipedia

We have no problem interacting with robotic stuffed animals, for example, nor real people, but a robot that looks and moves like a human has to be perfect — else it triggers all sorts of uncomfortable feelings in ways we still don’t fully understand.

That causes serious issues for robots designed to interact with people, and it’s a conundrum that roboticists like Ishiguro have yet to figure out — just watch a video of the robot version he made of himself to see the problem.

Japan seems to have a much greater interest in robots than the rest of the world, both in science and popular culture. The reason is thought to be because the country’s  declining birth rate and ageing population will eventually create serious problems for everything from its industry to care of the elderly, which makes robots an obvious solution. We’ve not sure we’d want to be woken up by a face like Erica’s every morning, though.

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