Robots both fascinate and frighten

Erica (Humanoid Robot) - Madrid
A robot called Erica (right), created by Japan’s Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, conducts a job interview during its presentation at the IROS 2018 International Conference on Intelligent Robots Friday in Madrid. AFP/GABRIEL BOUYS

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 ageing 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.

Human, but not too human

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.