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Last modified: Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Androids have higher calling than mechanical cousins, IU expert says

May 30, 2007

Twin Android

Researcher Zou Ren-Ti and his android "twin"

Print-Quality Photo

INDIANAPOLIS -- Consider the ordinary, garden-variety service robot -- a pretty decent pinch-hitter to do the dirty, drab and dangerous jobs most of us try to avoid. Think "Tin Man" but without heart and ability to communicate and reason.

But give the robot a realistic human face and body, carefully program it to mimic our mannerisms and traits, and you'll likely have a creature that interacts more closely with us -- one that can even help us better understand our own behavior. So says Karl F. MacDorman, an android and robotics science expert at the Indiana University School of Informatic.

"Human-looking robots have a greater potential for social interaction," MacDorman said. "They are the ultimate human communications interface. They can serve as companions, entertainers, rehabilitation therapists, realistic medical training dummies and teachers for autistic children."

MacDorman, associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, will share his expertise at the International Robots and Vision Conference in Chicago, June 11-14. He will join scientists from 26 nations presenting at a session highlighting recent trends and technology in service robots.

In the United States robots are still viewed mainly as tools for performing specific tasks, even when they act autonomously. They can be programmed for tasks such as delivering messages, medications and food in hospitals, cleaning public areas and general surveillance, MacDorman said.

"However, using an android seems to have little if any advantage over special-purpose robots in performing these kinds of jobs," he said. "A less expensive, wheeled robot can courier or vacuum faster than an android and with less power consumption."

MacDorman said that recent studies indicate androids are better able to elicit human norms of interaction than less humanlike robots or animated characters. However, there's a heightened sensitivity to defects in near humanlike forms -- an "uncanny valley" in what is otherwise a positive relationship between human likeness and familiarity.

The so-called uncanny valley phenomenon -- which MacDorman and many other android scientists study -- suggests that the more realistic and humanlike a robot appears, the more positively a human will react to it but only to a certain point where the resemblance actually causes a sense of repulsion or eeriness.

"But androids are now in a better position to escape the uncanny valley," MacDorman said. "I'm interested in finding out the principles of good android design that take us out of the valley, and those discoveries should also shed more light on the psychology and neuroscience of human perception."

The Xi'an Superman android, which is scheduled for exhibition in Chicago, is one example of recent advances in android realism. Its physical appearance closely mimics that of its creator, Zou Ren-Ti, founder of Xian Superman Sculpture Research Council in China.

Karl MacDorman

Karl MacDorman

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While there may be many benefits to building humanlike robots, there are ethical concerns in creating devices that elicit all-too-human traits and feelings -- love, nurturance and parental protection.

"They may make us feel good, but feed our narcissism and distract us from family and friends, while failing to understand us in a meaningful way," said MacDorman. "Androids could also sway our moral decision-making without legal or moral accountability. Such concerns will need to be worked out as androids come to play a greater role in society."

Joining MacDorman in the panel discussion on service robots are Jong-Oh Park, Chonham National University in South Korea; Hirohisa Hirukawa, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan; Martin Haegele, Fraunhofer Institute in Germany; and Henrik Christensen, Georgia Tech University.

More information about MacDorman's android science research is at