Adrian David Cheok, an Australian who is now a professor at Keio University in Tokyo, is one of the journal’s founders. The way he sees it, the internet has already helped bring people closer together. But it’s an experience limited by the fact that the internet currently only interacts with two of our senses: sight and sound. Anyone who has been brought back to childhood by a smell, or been comforted by a hug or touch — in other words, pretty much everyone — knows how powerful such senses can be.
“Actually, physically it’s also been shown that the smell and taste senses are directly connected to the limbic system of our brain. The limbic system of our brain is responsible for emotion and memory. Unlike the visual sense, which basically gets processed by visual cortex and then the frontal lobe, which is higher-order, logical part, we have direct connection between smell and taste and the emotional and memory part of our brain,” Cheok says.
“So much of our lives now is online, but still I think a lot of us will agree it’s so different than meeting someone face-to-face. You have all these different physical communications that we can’t capture now through an audio/visual screen,” he says. “Essentially I’m really interested in [whether we can] merge all of our five senses of human communication with the internet — with the virtual world. That’s what I call ‘mixed reality’.”
Robotics plays a key role in making that a reality, through what is known as telepresence. Basically, it means transmitting actions into a robotic surrogate somewhere else. This can be fairly simple, Cheok says. Cheok and his students have already developed a ring worn on the finger that can deliver a gentle squeeze from a loved one, via a smart phone app. A student of Cheok’s has recently commercially released a vest that can transmit hugs, which is proving useful for calming autistic children. Cheok’s engineers are working on systems to transmit taste, via electrical impulses to the tongue, as well as smell, either via electrical stimulation or the release of chemicals.
The goal further down the track will be the creation of robotic avatars — representations or embodiments of people, though not necessarily made to look like them. To start with, these will be soft, fluffy and not particularly complex. For example, we could transmit our presence into a pillow or teddy bear. But as the endeavours of such scientists as Hiroshi Ishiguro progress, the creation of human-like surrogates will become possible.
“We’re definitely getting there… The rate of change of technology is exponential. What before maybe we thought would take 50 years now takes 5 or 10. I don’t think it’s going to be very far off when we have humanoid robots. They may be expensive at first,” Cheok says.
“I think at that stage, we can have virtual avatars; virtual robots which then, for example, [let you] be in Tokyo or Sydney and give a conference in Los Angeles. You don’t have to fly there. Your robot can be there.”
If there’s one major obstacle in the way of Japan’s projected robo-utopia, it’s the country’s economic situation. Japan has been in a state of economic malaise for more than two decades, and memories of the robot-supported boom years are fading. Neither the companies likely to do the research nor the Japanese government are as flush with cash as they used to be.
One of Japan’s major strengths — its peacenik constitution — has also proved to be a weakness. In the United States, the massive military-industrial complex has marshalled resources to create some truly impressive machinery; drones, for example, have been developed to meet guaranteed demand from government agencies. In Japan, however, there is little co-ordination between different institutions and industries, explains Nishida of Kyoto University.
“People are just interested in working on small parts of the problem, rather than looking at the whole,” Nishida says. While some work on artificial intelligence, others are focussed on the outer physical appearance of robots. With co-ordination and plenty of funding, a fairly complete intelligent android could be built within the next decade or two, he says. Under current conditions, it will probably take longer.
But the consensus is that such robots are coming, and that they will most likely be made first in Japan.
Cheok, of Keio University, says he’s not convinced we’ll produce thinking, feeling, conscious robots until at least the middle of the century, if at all. But he is certain we’re heading towards a loving technological future.
Thanks to their Shinto beliefs, the Japanese have fewer cultural barriers standing in the way of forming close emotional bonds with machines. But as robots become smarter and better looking, he says many more people of other cultures will become ensnared.
“I think the thing is that we already develop bonding with not very intelligent beings. As a kid you might have kept a pet hamster or pet mouse. They’re not actually so intelligent. But I think that a kid can even cry when the hamster dies,” he says.
“I’m not a biologist. I don’t know why we developed empathy but I’m sure there’s an important evolutionary reason why we developed empathy. That empathy doesn’t just stop at human beings. We can develop empathy for small creatures and animals. I don’t think the leap is very far where you can develop empathy for robots.”