Increasingly human-like robots spark fascination and fear

Humanoid robot named Erica wowed audience members of the annual International Conference on Intelligent Robots in Madrid. (AFP/Gabriel Bouys)
Updated 06 October 2018
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Increasingly human-like robots spark fascination and fear

  • In Japan, humanoid robots like Erica are already used as receptionists
  • Engineers said that controversies around robots are due in part to fears of human employment

MADRID: Sporting a trendy brown bob, a humanoid robot named Erica chats to a man in front of stunned audience members in Madrid.
She and others like her are a prime focus of robotic research, as their uncanny human form could be key to integrating such machines into our lives, said researchers gathered this week at the annual International Conference on Intelligent Robots.
“You mentioned project management. Can you please tell me more?” Erica, who is playing the role of an employer, asks the man.
She may not understand the conversation, but she’s been trained to detect key words and respond to them.
A source of controversy due in part to fears for human employment, the presence of robots in our daily lives is nevertheless inevitable, engineers at the conference said.
The trick to making them more palatable, they added, is to make them look and act more human so that we accept them into our lives more easily.
In aging societies, “robots will coexist with humans sooner or later,” said Hiroko Kamide, a Japanese psychologist who specializes in relations between humans and robots.
Welcoming robots into households or workplaces involves developing “multipurpose machines that are capable of interacting” with humans without being dangerous, said Philippe Soueres, head of the robotics department at a laboratory belonging to France’s CNRS scientific institute.
As such, robots must move around “in a supple way” despite their rigid mechanics and stop what they are doing in case of any unforeseen event, he added.
That’s why people are choosing “modular systems shaped like human bodies” which are meant to easily fit into real-world environments built for humans.
For instance Atlas, a humanoid robot made by Boston Dynamics, can run on different types of surfaces.
In Madrid, Marc Raibert, founder of the US firm, played a video showing Atlas doing a backflip.
In a sign of fears over the potential future uses for these humanoids, Amnesty International has accused Atlas, financed by an agency of the US Department of Defense, of being a “killer robot” made for future warfare.
Another example of humanoids presented in Madrid is Talos, a robot made by Spanish company Pal Robotics shown testing his stability on a balance board.
While it may not be the only form used for those coming into contact with humans, “it’s easier for people to accept the robots when they have human-like faces because people can expect how the robots will move, will react,” said Kamide.
That’s comforting, but it also has its limits.
Japanese researcher Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” theory, which he developed in the 1970s, states that we react positively to robots if they have physical features familiar to us but they disturb us if they start looking too much like us.
“You can’t ever make a perfect human face” and this imperfection provokes a feeling of “rejection” among humans, said Miguel Salichs, a professor at the robotics lab of Madrid’s Carlos III University.
As such, he chose to fashion his robot Mini Maggie into a small cartoon animal.
In Japan, robots like Erica are already used as receptionists.
But for one of their makers, Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, humanoids are above all “a very important tool to understand humans.”
Researchers have to think hard about the human form and how humans interact to develop robots that look like them.
“We understand the humans by using robots, the importance for example of eye gazing,” said Ishiguro, who has also made robots that look like dead celebrities, or “moving statues.”
He believes that humanoids are best to improve interactions between robots and humans.
“The human brain that we have has many functions to recognize humans. The natural interface for the humans is the humans,” said Ishiguro.
For Jurgen Schmidhuber, president of artificial intelligence start-up NNAISENSE, robots — be they humanoid or not — will be part of our future.
They won’t just imitate humans but will solve problems by experimenting themselves thanks to artificial intelligence without “a human teacher,” he believes.
Sitting on her chair, Erica nods her head.


Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

A woman poses for a photo among poppies in bloom on the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, on March 8, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

LAKE ELSINORE, California: Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.
About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.
A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.
Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.
It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.
Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.
“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”
By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.
And people were streaming in again.
Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.
Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.
Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.
“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”
Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.
The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.
“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.
Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.
In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).
The city is again experiencing a super bloom.
The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).
But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.
Most importantly, Macuga said, the town’s businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee’s, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.
“We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media,” he said. “It helps now knowing what’s coming.”