Toshiba makes robots more human-like
Toshiba has shown off the latest generation of its Chihira robot at a trade fair in Berlin.
The machine – which is designed to look as human-like as possible – has had the German language added to its repertoire.
The firm also told the BBC that it upgraded the machine’s control system to make its movements smoother.
However, one expert suggested the realistic appearance might not be best suited to Western audiences.
Prof Noel Sharkey – a roboticist at the University of Sheffield – said he thought the machine still fell “clearly on this side of the uncanny valley”.
The term refers to the fact that many people feel increasingly uncomfortable the closer a robot gets to appearing like a human being, so long as the two remain distinguishable.
Toshiba brought the Chihira Kanae droid to the ITB travel expo to highlight what it hopes could become a viable product for the tourism industry.
The machine has been installed at an information desk where it responds to attendees’ verbal questions about the conference.
It marks the first appearance of the robot outside Japan, where it was unveiled last month.
The earlier models in the series are:
- Chihira Aico, which made its debut at Japan’s Ceatec tech show in 2014
- Chihira Junko, which was launched last October and is currently in use at a Tokyo shopping centre’s information desk
“We have improved the software and the hardware to [improve] the air pressure system,” explained Hitoshi Tokuda, chief specialist at Toshiba’s research and development centre.
“If the air pressure is unstable, her movements become affected by vibrations. So, if the air flow is very precisely controlled, her movements are smoother.”
Like its predecessors, Chihira Kanae can also interpret and respond to requests in English, Japanese and Chinese, as well as using sign language.
“It can be combined with any kind of language processing system, so we can make her speak many other languages as well,” added Mr Tokuda.
“We have created Chihira Kanae to have a human-like appearance as people, particularly the older generation, find this look more welcoming and approachable.
“This is particularly important as, in addition to her work in the tourism and service industries, Chirhira Kanae will be used in the health sector to care for older people.
“We have also found that people prefer speaking to a human-like communication android as they can ask their questions as many times as they need, without feeling embarrassed or awkward.”
However, Prof Sharkey is not convinced by Toshiba’s approach.
“As a robot, it is very good but it still has that slight look of a psycho killer,” he commented.
He added that there was a growing cultural split in opinions about what androids should look like.
“In surveys between Japan and the US, it seems that the Japanese really want robots that are indistinguishable from humans, while in the US and the West in general, people would rather know it’s a robot that they are dealing with.
“Personally, I would always prefer to know that I am dealing with a robot rather than being deceived by a machine. It is a matter of trust.”
A contrast to Toshiba’s approach is a new collaboration between IBM and Hilton Hotels & Resorts.
They are using a robot to provide guests at one of Hilton’s Virginia properties with information about local attractions.
The machine uses IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence software to make its recommendations.
The companies selected Nao – a squat, plastic-looking android made by Japan’s Softbank – to deliver the information.