Kodomoroid what? Six things to know about Japan's latest news-speaking android

The notion of genetically-engineered robots entering the human sphere is becoming more of a reality.

On Tuesday, Japanese scientists unveiled the world's first news-speaking android at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Technology in Tokyo. Named Kodomoroid, which is an amalgamation of "kodomo" (meaning child in Japanese) and android, she is more than just automated machinery as she possesses exceptionally life-like features and is capable of spontaneous human interactions.

Together with her adult version, Otonaroid ("otona" means adult in Japanese), the pair are achievements of how far research in technology and robotics has advanced.

We look at six interesting facts about Kodomoroid and her eerily human-like qualities:

1. She has the gift of the gab

Komodoroid is able to fluently and articulately report the news gathered from around the world in a variety of voices and languages, 24 hours a day. At the exhibition, she read the news without stumbling once and was able to recite complex tongue-twisters. She even showed she possesses a good sense of humour when she teased her creator, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, about starting to look more like a robot.

The child robot can also flit from a deep male voice in one minute to a squeaky girly voice in the next. Talk about creepy.

2. She is modelled on a real human 

To make the android look disturbingly human, a complete plaster has to be made of the human model to get their complete dimensions. A cast is even taken of their teeth.

A special type of silicone that resembles human skin is used for the body, along with hundreds of hours of moulding, painting and crafting to shape the model's facial features so that it looks human-like.

3. She uses a complex and advanced tele-operating system

Complex machinery and programming are combined to act as "muscles", such that every part of the android is capable of complex human gestures and facial inflections, as well as moving and interacting with others as realistically as possible. The android uses a tele-operation system and integrates ubiquitous sensor systems to convey a human "presence".

Of course, glitches are bound to occur. Otonaroid's lips were out of sync with her voice and she kept silent when asked to introduce herself at the opening of the exhibition. But we can trust the Japanese creators to continue working diligently on that.

4. She questions our humanity

The androids are not just products of technology's advancement, but also serve a more profound purpose. Creator and Japanese robotics expert Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University's Department of Systems Innovation, seeks to understand through his inventions what it means to be human. He states:  "Androids may not be in use straight away, but the process of understanding our nature is the most interesting part of the study of androids."

"It's very interesting how we don't really understand what it means to be a human being," he says. "What does it mean to be 'human'? What do you mean when you say that you 'think'? What are 'emotions'?" 

Prof Ishiguro has also made a humanoid version of himself, which he sends overseas to give lectures in his place. He said that it reduces his business trips. "Technical advances mean robots look and act more human, and that makes us think about our worth," he adds.

 

5. She is a working employee

Both Kodomoroid and Otonaroid will be employed at Tokyo's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, interacting with visitors to collect data for Prof Ishiguro's research on human studies. They will join humanoid robot ASIMO, who was invented by Honda engineers and is currently working as a science communicator at the museum.

6. She is not the only one out there

The Japanese love their robots. While Kodomoroid is considered one of the more advanced and human-like robots, there have been other "predecessors".

Japanese telecommunications firm Softbank has recently released a humanoid robot called Pepper on the market that can read and express emotions as well as replace its diminishing workforce to take care of the elderly population. The 121-cm robot is going as low as 198,000 yen (S$2,422). Many robots in Japan have been specifically designed for working and companionship, especially in reponse to the needs of a rapidly ageing population.

In 2005, Toyota presented two robots at the 2005 Expo in Aichi, Japan that were able to collaborate with each other and synchronise movements. One was able to play the trumpet with its human-like lips and fingers, while the other, called "i-foot", has a shell-type cabin and can be mounted and controlled by users.