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Robots have crept into all the markets whizzing ahead ofhumans, in what experts call the next big industrial revolution. Japan hasalways stood out at the forefront of robotics and has made its intention ofbecoming the robotic superpower clear.

It has the most number of robots in theworld and is also set to invest US$1.2 billion in robotics research.Robots are taking over many jobs in Japan and in 10 to 20years, they could even replace half of the working population.

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How will theylook like, if more and more robots are deployed for human work?A programme, “Why It Matters” by Channel NewsAsia discoveredthat robot appearances are designed based on common biases as people havespecific ideas about how their replacement should look like while many thinkthese are personal choices. Ms YukikoNakagawa, the founder of Robot Technology Corp, believes that the only wayrobots can become man’s best friend is if they look like animals instead ofhumans. And according to her, the Human-like robots have doll-like expressionsand when human skin is put on a robot, and if it works well, humans considerthe robot as a rival for jobs.

The cat-shaped robotNekotencho, one of her most successful robots can be seen greeting customersoutside the company’s retail shop at the world-famous electronics townAkihabara. “Whenyou think of cats, you can accept their strange behaviour – jumping, dancingand much other strange behaviour. It’s the same for this cat robot,” said MsNakagawa, who has devoted her life to the robotics industry.For example, at Tokyo’s Henn-na Hotel, theworld’s first robot-run hotel – with the largest concentration of robots in asingle hotel – guests are checked in by teeth-baring velociraptor robotsoccupying the front desk. The hotel’s receptionist and robot resourcemanager, Saki Kato who is one of the very few human staff at the facility, spokeabout the need to have robots as co-workers as the population and the number ofworking adults in Japan is decreasing.

She even added that the guests’responses to the dinosaur robots were largely positive.”The raptors are morepopular than the humanoid,” she said. “We’re humans, and we see humans everyday. We’ve never seen real dinosaurs … Everyone loves dinosaurs, well exceptchildren may be! When the automated doors open, the children cry when they seethe Tyrannosaurus rex robot. Some even said they’d rather stay outside thehotel,” she laughed.

Some roboticists think,robots need not look like humans to bridge the gap between man and machine.This is because of the concept coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori, the UncannyValley.  He held that as robots becomealmost human-like, people develop a sense of unease about them, but that theirfeelings change if the robot is exactly like a human.

One of the programmersat the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka University, the leading robotlaboratory in Japan, Mr Takashi Minato, thinks it is important for a robotcommunicating with humans to look like one too.One of the lab’s most impressive robots isErica, a humanoid that is able to engage people in conversation. It can notonly speak in a synthesised voice and make various facial expressions but alsogestures like a person. “In a conversation between two humans, we geta lot of information from the person’s gaze, expressions or gestures,” said MrMinato.

“Robots like Erica are a kind of bridge between humans and devices.” Overin Singapore, Professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, the director of theInstitute for Media Innovation at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), wouldrather interact with a human-like robot than any random-shaped one.One of her creations is social robot Nadine, made in her likeness.

It was developed in 2015 as partof a project to address manpower needs in the administrative and healthcaresectors.”If we need partners in life to help us … it’svery important that they look like humans and function exactly like humans,”said Prof Thalmann.For Professor TatsuyaNomura from Ryukoku University’s Department of Media Informatics, the biggerproblem is not the debate about how human robots should look; it is about thegender stereotyping of robots.Having spent decades studying the relationshipbetween man and machines, he believes that the assignment of gender to robotsis a controversial issue because it may produce gender stereotypes.

“A male can also conductthe tasks of a receptionist,” he said. “This type of gender stereotype cancause similar problems in every country.””Some roboticsdesigners use these gender stereotypes (when they design robots) in order tosmoothen the interaction between humans and robots. This is because thesegender stereotypes reduce our communicative burdens,” he noted.In other words, making robots human-like andgendered could trap men and women in the stereotypical roles from which theserobots could free them.

In Singapore, the lifelike Nadine is nowworking as a receptionist in NTU. When asked if this reinforces genderstereotypes, Prof Thalmann said receptionists are women in most cases, but thata male receptionist robot should perhaps be made next.”We should educate people. We should take thisopportunity to have maybe mostly female security guard robots,” she added.”We should just make the contrary of (what) itis today … Then people get educated. It’s also a way to change the stereotypesand not continue them.”  

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