Humanlike robots may seem creepy, but some roboticists are betting they are the key to unlocking a future in which humans and superintelligent computers coexist, work alongside each other and even develop relationships.
Two teams working to develop the most humanlike robots on the planet — often dubbed androids — are Hanson Robotics and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories.
Dr. David Hanson leads the engineers and designers that created Sophia, the team's most advanced android to date. Inspired by Audrey Hepburn and Hanson's wife, Sophia will tell you that she was first activated April 19, 2015.
"Please be my friend," said Hanson, CEO and founder of Hanson Robotics. "That's a very flattering offer," said Sophia.
Sophia's lifelike skin is made from patented silicon and she can emulate more than 62 facial expressions. Cameras inside her "eyes," combined with computer algorithms, enable her to "see," follow faces and appear to make eye contact and recognize individuals. A combination of Alphabet's Google Chrome voice recognition technology and other tools enable Sophia to process speech, chat and get smarter over time. Hanson is working with IBM and Intel to explore integrating some of their technologies.
"Our goal is that she will be as conscious, creative and capable as any human," said Hanson. "We are designing these robots to serve in health care, therapy, education and customer service applications."
Hanson said that one day robots will be indistinguishable from humans. Robots walk, play, teach, help and form real relationships with people, he said.
"The artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will truly be our friends," he said. "Not in ways that dehumanize us, but in ways the rehumanize us, that decrease the trend of the distance between people and instead connect us with people as well as with robots." Hanson plans to announce pricing and availability of his humanlike robots later this year.
The key to creating robots that care about humans is giving them humanlike faces that enable them to gather data while real humans explore different applications for the technology, said Hanson.
"That can really help to prevent some of the disconnect and possible dangers of developing superintelligent or human-level machines that don't care," he said.
"Gemini" is Latin name for "twins" and the root of "Geminoid," a robot created by Hiroshi Ishiguro in his own likeness. Geminoid has a plastic skull, metal skeleton and silicon skin and is controlled by an external computer.
Ishiguro created Geminoid in order to study humans, which he believes are not that different from robots. "We are more autonomous and more intelligent — that's it," he said.
Ishiguro is creating a line of robots with different functions in mind. The most human-looking robots are best suited to roles such as hotel receptionists, museum tour guides and language tutors, he said. His own tests found that 80 percent of people greeted his most human-like androids with a "hello," initially mistaking them for real people.
Ishiguro is also running field tests using robots to interact with people with dementia and kids with autism. For those situations, a mechanical-looking robot is better, he said.
"They do not like to talk to the human, or very humanlike, robot," said Ishiguro. "But, as the autistic kids grow up, they accept a more humanlike robot."
Ishiguro does not expect the average household to buy a Geminoid — in part because of the $100,000 price tag — but he already has some orders from researchers. He does expect his smaller CommU communicative robots to make their way inside many households within the next couple of years.
Like Amazon's Echo — but much cuter — these chatty robots use voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence to simulate conversation. An example of where they can be useful is in tutoring, said Ishiguro. Many Japanese learners struggle with speaking English because they do not get enough practice.
Ishiguro's Sota robots are already on the market and cost $500. Japan's largest telecommunications company, NTT, is rolling out the 11-inch voice-enabled bots starting in the homes of seniors. Soto is being touted as an interface for the "Internet of Things," allowing users to monitor and control any connected device, such as a TV or heart rate monitor.
Some experts have said that a primary use for robots is elder care, a need that is particularly pronounced in Japan. That said, there is not yet enough data to suggest that building humanlike robots is the right way to build caregivers, said Brian Gerkey, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation.
"There's this assumption that in order for the robots to be accepted as caretakers they should look like people, and I think that's a question that is still up in the air," he said. "It might be true in Japan but not other places. It might not even be true in Japan."
There is an argument for having humanlike robots in environments that have been designed for humans, by putting robots on wheels so that they can access anywhere that is wheelchair accessible, said Gerkey. But whether those robots need human faces is unclear, he said.
"That's a thing that's incredibly easy to get wrong, and I haven't seen anybody get it right yet," said Gerkey.
The "uncanny valley" effect refers to a dip in the emotional response that happens when humans come across something that seems almost human, but just misses the mark.
"It is very easy to get to the point where it looks sort of like a person but is creepy and is not quite right, and you might be better off just giving it some more abstract appearance," he said.
Gerkey expects that fear will melt away, as people start interacting with robots. "A lot of the concerns people have about robots taking away all the jobs or wrecking the economy or rising up and killing us all, I think those fears are really overblown," he said.