Dances with robots

December 13, 2010 • 2:55 pm

I’m putting this up for no reason other than I find it remarkable—and also a tad creepy (click to enlarge):

The lead singer isn’t human, but a robot—the HRP-4C Gynoid. I swear that when I first saw this video, I thought “she” was a human dressed up and acting like a robot. (The oversized hands were, however, a giveaway.)

According to Technovoigy.com,

HRP-4C is a robotic woman just unveiled to reporters in Tsukuba City (northeast of Tokyo) Japan. This cybernetic human sells for about $200,000.

Developed at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the HRP-4C female robot is able walk and follow some basic commands. The robotic woman is about the same size as an average Japanese young woman, at a height of 158 centimeters; it weighs just 43 kilograms (including battery).

Thirty motors in the body help it to walk and move about; eight motors power facial expressions.

and

The dance routine for HRP-4Cwas produced by dancer/choreographer SAM-san, who is a member of the music group TRF, and has worked with numerous well-known artists like SMAP and BoA. The song is a Vocaloid version of “Deatta Koro no Yō ni” (Every Little Thing) by Kaori Mochida.

Here’s a demo video showing her true robotitude:

h/t: Yokohamamama

46 thoughts on “Dances with robots

  1. Could there be a more skeevy name for a “female” robot than “Gynoid”? There is enough fodder here for dozens of Women’s Studies theses.

    1. Gyno means female. What is “skeevy” about that? It sounds like a pretty obvious choice for a “female” robot.

      1. Yes, “gyno” is the Greek root for “female”, and is applied in English overwhelmingly to terms related to female reproduction and genitalia. That seems creepy to me — it seems to sexualize, and not just gender, the robot.

        For that matter, I’m not clear why need a separate term for “female” robots at all (the “fembots” of Austin Powers were intended to be a joke, after all). We don’t have terms for the separate genders of dolls, do we?

        (I suppose the intent is to provide a female counterpart to “android”, but that term has this point been “gender inclusive”, and the “andros” not designating a gender, but used in the inclusive sense.)

        1. The gender-inclusive form would have been “anthroid”. Android is specifically male (cf androgen, andrology). The word was coined in the 1950s or 60s before our consciousnesses had all been raised. Its opposite, “usuform” never took off.

        2. We don’t have terms for the separate genders of dolls, do we?

          Sure we do. The male ones are called “action figures”.

  2. There’re two main aspects to the robot’s motions that I find disturbingly unnatural.

    First…well, when humans walk, and especially when we run, but really at all times, our center of balance moves forward. Essentially, we fall and then catch ourselves with our feet. The HRP-4C is very careful to remain perfectly balanced at all times. The only times a human ever moves like that is when severely weakened, injured or otherwise infirm.

    The second is that the robot’s movements are far too precise and calculated. I would suggest throwing some random number generators in there…except that doing so would almost be guaranteed to throw the robot off balance. Obviously, the robot is incapable of recovering its balance (or else it wouldn’t have the first limitation above). If I understand human anatomy right, that’ll mean creating a very sophisticated artificial foot and some real whiz-bang algorithms to control it.

    Once roboticists can overcome the balance problem, I suspect it won’t be long before we’ll see a robot that could catch a ride on the subway without ever getting a second glance.

    What one would do with such a machine is beyond me, but I won’t be so arrogant or naïve to pretend that such a thing must be useless.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. What one would do with such a machine is beyond me

      Ditto. The human form is by no means ideal for doing many tasks. The only reason to have such a human-mimicking robot (especially with the face) is purely psychological (and again, creepy).

      1. Um, what? Most spaces, tools et cetera are designed for *humans*.

        CAD programs have artificial “robots” that test human designs for space, movement et cetera. Dummies are constantly developed for similar real life testing.

        The obvious step is to make all purpose robots that do what humans do, because it will be cheaper.

        That it is also cooler helps, of course. 😀

        1. Most spaces, tools et cetera are designed for *humans*.

          Right, because that is who usually occupies and wields them. But if one is instead going to have a robot wield tools, why design the robot to look human? Do assembly-line robots look human? Do CNC machines involve human-like arms holding drills in human-like hands?

          artificial “robots” that test human designs for space, movement et cetera. Dummies are constantly developed for similar real life testing

          And in those limited cases, a human-shaped robot would be useful, although mimicking facial expressions would be generally useless in those cases.

          The obvious step is to make all purpose robots that do what humans do, because it will be cheaper.

          I don’t believe that’s true — would it be cheaper to create a disaffected-teenbot to flip burgers at McDonalds, or to develop an automated burger production system? Would it be cheaper to create a human-shaped robot and give it a shovel to dig ditches, or to create a ditch-digging device?

          A multipurpose device is never as effective or efficient as a single-purpose device that is optimized for its task. The only thing human-mimicking robots are optimized for is mimicking humans (and badly at that).

          1. You’ve pointed to what’ll probably be the most popular use for humanoid robots: sex.

            The most popular public-facing uses will probably be for the same kinds of things as we get automated voice prompt systems for, now. The greeters at the store, receptionists behind counters, ushers (but not security, not for a long time) at public venues, that sort of thing. But the robots will have to get a hell of a lot cheaper…and, even then, we still might not get them. After all, we already have non-humanoid robots at the checkout aisle in lots of stores — or what else did you think those scanner-and-conveyor-belt contraptions are in the self-checkout lane?

            There might be a call for humanoid robots for military and police actions, precisely because they can be made intimidating. In the States, though, that’ll be delayed for a while thanks to the stigma of the “Robocop” and “Terminator” series of movies. Either the government will have to become unapologetically tyrannical or the robots will have to become commonplace in society first.

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. I thought the facial “expressions” were eerily well-done. Made it very hard not to feel some sort of connection with “her.”

              Oh, man, robotic greeters can’t come soon enough! I so hate greeters!

          2. One reason to create a humanoid robot is that it’s a hell of an engineering challenge, and there are biological models readily available for study. We already know that there’s plenty of terrain where wheels are next to useless. Studying robotic bipedalism makes engineering robots to navigate that kind of terrain that much easier.

            Current search-and-rescue bots are on treads and remote controlled. Imagine going into a collapsed building with something that crawl, climb, gallop, or walk upright, and make that decision for itself.

          3. No, you’re missing the point. A humanoid robot who can use any human tools can be easily redeployed to whatever series of tasks are currently required.

            So, yes, it would be cheaper to create a ditch digging device, but what about a device that digs a ditch, packs down the soil, lays down a layer of sand, compacts that, puts down a layer of gravel, rolls out some landscaping cloth, puts down a drainage pipe, wraps the cloth around the pipe, backfills with more gravel, puts some landscaping cloth on top of that and then fills the ditch again with soil?

            It would be a pretty complicated machine that was optimized to do that, and in truth, you’d probably never find one which was set up like that.

            However, a generalist robot, designed to use human tools, could do all that, and any other unspecified series of tasks the owner might require.

            It’s the same kind of shift computers made: from originally being specially constructed for a single purpose, to generalist machines that could be programmed to perform all sorts of different functions. Right now, we’ve got lots of special purpose robots; in the future, we’ll have more flexible, general purpose robots.

            1. The same argument could be made about factory work, but humanoid robots haven’t taken over there, and aren’t likely to. And we do have automated pipe-laying machines that trench, lay the pipe, and cover the whole, and I’m sure it works faster than a robot with a shovel.

              If your company is going to be digging ditches one day, making cars the next day, and baking snack cakes the day after that, it might makes sense to have a generalist device that can be redeployed to those different tasks. But that’s not the way most companies operate.

            2. No, you have it precisely backwards: the same argument can’t be made about factory work, because ever since the development of the assembly line, factory work has broken down into a very defined series of tasks. That makes it perfect for purpose-built robots, not generalist robots. Which is why factory work is where robots have their greatest presence.

              And there are plenty of companies whose activities change from day to day as a natural part of the business. Think of home construction. At the beginning, there might be a lot of digging to prepare for laying the foundation, followed by pouring the concrete. Then throughout the project there’s a bunch of framing work, plumbing, electrical, roofing, exterior work, drywalling, finish carpentry, painting, landscaping, and so on and so forth. It would be much more expensive to buy a dozen specialized robots to perform all those various tasks than to buy one or two generalist robots who could use already existing human tools to do all those tasks.

    2. There are designs of, say, jumping robots where the center of gravity is all over the place.

      Not conversant with robotics as such, nevertheless I suspect the different processor’s loads are cumbersome in these designs pushing the envelope for integration. Also, they are expensive and potential customers want minimized risk both close to humans and for economy.

      So they started “safe”, and will stay that way until the public gets tired of stiff dancing et cetera. The HRP-4C is light and likely weak enough to pose no great danger to grownups if toppled, but there are other public groups to consider. If you go for unbalanced designs you would probably also want sensor feedback (skin sensitivity) to minimize trouble and maximize recovery, and that area has to catch up.

    3. I suspect it won’t be long before we’ll see a robot that could catch a ride on the subway without ever getting a second glance.

      The day it spills its latte all over me is the day I’ll mistake it for another damn human and not before!

  3. I dunno about the creepy, one is used to children (yech, well not *used* perhaps), animals and cross dressers dressing up.

    They made some pretty interesting choices though. Instead of letting the humans dance robotic style to hide the differences they are already trying to let the robot dance as fluidly as possible.

    They goofed at least on one part, where the coordination of the robot “making a sea” with combined arm movements is way better than most humans can do. It was impressive so should have been choreographed in more if they wanted to show off, or been cut out if they wanted to emulate humans.

  4. The oversized hands were, however, a giveaway.

    Oh, I don’t know about that. Usually when I see a female singer/dancer with large hands, I check for an adam’s apple.

    I find it fascinating how far humanoid robots have come in the past decade.

    1. Totally OT, but I just realized I’ve visited your website before in other contexts, but never made the connection to the Ben Goren who posts at WEIT.

      Fellow brass musician, techy-day-job, science-blog-reading guy here.

  5. From my limited understanding of the use of robots, particularly in Japan, they are being designed for use as carers & companions for an increasingly aged population. This,as far as I know is part of t reason behind making them so human like.
    And I think the level of acceptance in Japan is much higher than in western countries hence the amount of research they are undertaking.

  6. Man, I am so disappointed. I sent you the creepiest picture ever. My cat Al. Dead now, because of you.
    You could at least share it.
    If you don’t, Al’s brother Ted is in trouble.

  7. Wow–thanks! I had no idea that a brief, humble post of mine would generate such an *interesting* robotics discussion :-))! To me, those oversize/one-size-fits-all hands threw into sharp relief how important the movement of the human hand is in dance.

    Ben G pointed out that: “The HRP-4C is very careful to remain perfectly balanced at all times. The only times a human ever moves like that is when severely weakened, injured or otherwise infirm.” Aha–that explains the ‘bend ze knees, five dollars pleeze’ look. To her credit (or the programmers credit), though, she *does* do the girly foot-flip. That must have been an interesting engineering challenge to keep her balanced on one foot…

    Sam said “You know the future of these robots is in the sex industry.” Presumably he means for men. Women already have sex robots. They’re called vibrators ;-))

    1. Sam said “You know the future of these robots is in the sex industry.” Presumably he means for men. Women already have sex robots. They’re called vibrators

      And this demonstrates my point exactly — specialized single-purpose devices are inherently more effective than general tools. 🙂

  8. This seems like such a waste to me.

    Aren’t there more practical apps for this kind of technology?

    As for sex ‘bots: I wouldn’t want to get under one of those things! Blech. No thx!

  9. the HRP-4C female robot is able walk and follow some basic commands.

    This should be a big hit with xtian and muslim fundamentalists, in fact in pretty much any patriarchal, misogynistic society.

    And no references to the “The Stepford Wives” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073747/) yet ? The original of course, not the remake.

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