Erica, the humanoid robot, is chatty but still has a lot to learn

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Jefferson Graham visits the Kyoto, Japan Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories to meet Erica, a lifelike humanoid. Watch the interview on Talking Tech.
USA Today

KYOTO, Japan —Erica greets me, asks my name and how I’m enjoying my trip to Japan. She nods her head as I speak and her eyes wander as if she’s going to work the room, but she seems only to be listening to me.

This eerie humanoid just happens to be a “conversational” robot companion. And the conversation only goes so far: She’s reciting from a digital file that has been placed inside her as I read into a microphone from a script of questions researchers have given me to prompt her.

ErIca is part of a five-year research project to build a talking friend for an aging, shrinking population in Japan.  

The robot revolution is active worldwide. In the U.S., companies are looking to robots to replace menial labor in the coming years. Electronics manufacturers showed various degrees of robots at the CES trade show last month that, for the most part, basically bring a set of digital eyes and smiles to smart connected speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

 

But for the cutting edge when it comes to robot companions, Japan is the place to be. Asian researchers are among the leaders in the pursuit of building humanoids and in Japan, robots are revered. There’s a hotel near Tokyo that attracts visitors by having robots check in guests, a popular robot restaurant (featuring a show of battling Transformer types) and many a cartoon (Astro Boy) comic book and movie featuring friendly robots.

“In Japan, many are living alone and they need to have a conversation with others,” says Takashi Minato, a researcher with Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories. “The human-like robot can help support them.”

In Hong Kong, researcher David Hanson, whose Hanson Robotics company motto is “we bring robots to life,” has created “Sophia,” a lifelike robot that has appeared at trade shows and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Sophia has her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages and Erica’s creator talks of her having read the news as an anchor for a Japan TV station.

But neither Sophia nor Erica are available for sale, and won’t be for some time.

 

Could the humanoid robot experience fly here? Not for years, says Jim Boerkoel, a professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

Robots here will be “service machines,” and that’s it, for now.

“People will be more likely to go towards robots that are cute and friendly, in an animated form factor that is clearly separate from being human,” he says.

Consumer robots are just starting to join the marketplace here in the United States and the two that are most widely available both fall into the Alexa-with-eyes variety:

 

Jibo. This is a small device that looks like a white Echo speaker with a round iPad attached atop. It’s meant to sit on a table and can read you the weather, play music on demand or take photos. It’s “face and voice recognition technology,” means it can learn from the people it lives with. It retails for $899.

 

Kuri.  Kuri is a round, more traditional robot, sort of pint-sized version of the humanoid many of us remember from our youth, Rosie, from “The Jetsons,” animated cartoon. Or the Pillsbury Doughboy. Or a snowman.

Kuri is on wheels and can travel around the home, with “emotive eyes,” that blink (and have a hidden camera) according to the company. Beyond the movement, there’s little she does that Alexa or a smartphone can’t do currently. She plays music on demand, can take photos or provide the imaging to let you live stream from home.

Released late last year on a limited basis,  Kuri can pre-ordered for $799 until March 1, then the price goes to $899 later. Deliveries are expected in the spring.

Unlike Erica and Sophia, neither Jibo nor Kuri have lifelike skin or prosthetic eyes.

Beyond the novelty of successfully building a humanoid, there are legitimate reasons to make them, says Julie Carpenter, a research fellow with the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

“If it looks human-like, or animal-like, we have a sense for how we can interact with it naturally,” she says. “If it responds to you in a way you understand, it makes it efficient for you to operate the robot.”

 

In Japan, Minato doesn’t expect to see humanoids in society for many years. If she were for sale, Erica would cost somewhere over $200,000, says Minato.

We met Erica at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, a multi-story think tank in Kyoto, in the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories. Ishiguro is a longtime robotics advocate who has created many humanoids, including one is his own likeness.

He’s in the third-year of the five-year project to make robots lifelike. 

Yet Erica can barely move. She is stationary, operated by sensors strategically placedaroundthe room to help her detect who is speaking and the direction of voices talking to her.

Eventually, Carpenter believes the humanoids will join us in our living rooms.

“Culturally, we’re a little less receptive to the idea now, but that will change over time as our exposure to robots grows, and they become more of our everyday lives.”

 

 

“They have a cultural inclination to be accepting towards technology and put money into funding research for how to care for aging population with robots,” says Carpenter. “We don’t have that kind of research or funding here.”

Beyond Erica and Sophia, the Japanese will see an Aibo dog robot from Sony coming to stores later this year with a hefty sales price near $2,000 and a monthly $30 service fee. The latest Aibo doesn’t talk, but can do tricks and wowed the CES crowds in January at the Sony booth.

The dream, says Minato, is to create the “ultimate” robot, a conversational humanoid that can respond to “any topics we bring up and have a natural conversation.”

He’s still a ways away. “It’s a difficult target,” he says.

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham on Twitter, @jeffersongraham and listen to the daily Talking Tech podcast on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. 

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