In the future, those unable to attend a meeting in person may decide to send a creepy robot in their place. Kokoro, maker of the Actroid, have teamed up again with famous engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro at the Intelligent Robotics Lab to create the Geminoid F. This womanly android (the 'F' stands for female), is able to smile and express emotions through its life-like face. Kokoro is working with ATR to make Geminoid F remotely accessible so that is can be used as a telepresence robot. Ishiguro's human-looking replicants are getting better but I'm still creeped out by their not-quite-real-enough appearance. Judge the freak factor for yourself in the following video from NHK (untranslated from Japanese).
There's no denying it - the pursuit of realistic looking androids often leads to some eerie results. Besides the Geminoids and Actroids, Kokoro's helped create a robot baby that would scare the hardiest of horror fans. Of course, Japan doesn't have a patent on creepy creations. Some of the replicants from Hanson Robotics give me the willies. All of these efforts, however short they may fall, are showing progress. We're in the middle of a rough time for life-like humanoid bots, a robot puberty if you will, but eventually we'll arrive on the other side. The ultimate goal is to create robots that can easily stand in for humans. When they arrive, they will change the way we do business and give us the opportunity to use robots in places where only humans were accepted before. Kokoro has hinted that it hopes to use the Surrogates movie as a sort of example of where they are headed.
To that end, Kokoro also seems intent on increasing the human appeal of their creation. Geminoid F will be able to mimic the human emotions of its operator and give a full toothy smile. Famous fashion designer Junko Koshino personally created its clothes. According to the Kokoro press release, the Geminoid F also appears "one-quarter non-Japanese" to give it a world-wide appeal.
Kokoro has worked on making the Geminoid F not only more life-like, but also cheaper. The bot uses fewer actuators than its predecessors, from 46 down to 12. Its air compression system has been incorporated into its frame and now runs on household power levels. No details yet on how the robot will be teleoperated, and if/how video of the operator will translate into facial expressions of the Geminoid. AFP quotes Ishiguro as stating the robots final price to likely be somewhere near ¥10 million (~$106,000).
I know it's going to be an interesting article when I have to link to the Wikipedia discussion on the Uncanny Valley. I see engineers trying to recreate the human face in a realistic way and I wince. This is a difficult process and it may get worse before it gets better. One day though, we'll have robots that can walk and talk just like humans. They may, in fact, be humans interacting via telepresence due to health or travel concerns. Or they could be autonomous robots. Give it some time, and humanity will have to come to terms with the idea that the 'people' we interact with on a regular basis may not be people at all. Of course, considering how much time we spend online the transition may not be so difficult.