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Thespian android brings life to robot on stage at Banff Centre’s Convergence

Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, left, created Geminoid HI- 4, an android in his own image.

ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory

No actor wants their performance to be reviewed as robotic, but this is a whole other story. Geminoid F is a robot.

A creation of Intelligent Robotics Laboratory (IRL) at Osaka University, the life-like android can boast acting experience that includes the play Sayonara, a two-hander written for robot and human by Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata. The Sayonara role was a bit of typecasting, you might say, as she/it plays a human-like robot caregiver who recites poetry to a dying woman. When Sayonara played in Melbourne a couple of years ago, audiences were captivated – and a little bit fooled, in spite of all the publicity a thespian robot will attract.

"I was a co-programmer for the piece so I knew all that but despite that I was bamboozled," says Jen Mizuik, then-director of Experimenta – Australia's Biennial of Media Art, which was involved in staging the work. "You honestly can't tell that it's a robot."

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Mizuik was appointed director, visual/digital arts at the Banff Centre this year. And it was on her strong recommendation that Osaka University's revolutionary Intelligent Robotics Laboratory be included in Convergence, on now at the Banff Centre. Described as an international summit on art and technology, it explores intersections between the two areas.

"What technology is doing to art forms is kind of brilliant and amazing and fun and exciting," says the Banff Centre's vice-president of arts, Carolyn Warren. Convergence is her baby. "It is the beginning for us of a whole kind of reflection on where art is headed." She promises new initiatives in the next few months such as a residency in digital storytelling. (It was announced this week that current Luminato CEO Janice Price will take over as Banff Centre president in March.)

The Osaka lab, also known as Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, is run by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a rock-star roboticist who is best known for creating Geminoid HI-4, an android in his own image.

Ishiguro – who has won the RoboCup Prize for Best Human Robot multiple times, and has also been awarded the Osaka Culture Prize – has famously undergone cosmetic procedures in order to keep his appearance similar to his robot's, despite the human aging process.

"When I made my copy I was 41 years old. Later on, of course, I'm getting old and androids never get old," says Ishiguro, now 51. "So I needed to do something so we can be identical. Of course, the one approach is to make the new android with my old face. But I don't like to get old and actually … the cosmetic plastic surgery is much cheaper."

Ishiguro sends his robot doppelganger to conferences around the world to give a prepared talk, and then controls it through the Internet for the Q&A afterward. "I don't need to go to foreign countries any more," he said during an interview from Osaka late Thursday.

It's his colleague Kohei Ogawa who has come to Banff – with a Telenoid (smaller than an android with a more neutral appearance as opposed to being a copy of an actual human being like the Geminoids). Minimal in terms of detail, a little bit ghostly and in all honesty kind of cute, the Telenoid appeared on a local breakfast program in Calgary this week – wearing a Santa hat for part of the segment – and has been delighting attendees who braved the persistent Rocky Mountain snow to get to Banff, where they've been interacting with the little robot.

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The Telenoids, the professors say, could replace telephones and programs like Skype in the future, and become a proxy for someone who is not physically present.

But the androids are more life-like, and they're the ones who have been taking the stage as part of the IRL's research.

"The androids sometimes look more human than the humans," Ogawa says in an interview from Banff. He explains that the first time he heard Geminoid F recite poetry – a poem by Shuntaro Tanikawa – he was "really moved."

On stage, the android – which is initially controlled by a human actor remotely but then programmed to run automatically by computer – can appear more human than the actor, Ogawa says.

"We asked some questions to the audience after the show. Which is the android? They couldn't distinguish," he says.

However, Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck had no trouble making that distinction when he saw Sayonara last year, at least once the action began at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre. "The mechanical performers … don't pose any threat to the future livelihoods of our flesh-based ones," he wrote in a February, 2013, review.

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Recently, the lab's Geminoids have been employed at an Osaka science museum, as tour guides, and department store, selling cashmere sweaters (successfully, according to Ogawa, who reports 50 sales of the sweaters "which are not so cheap"). There are plans to put Geminoid F to work for White Day – a holiday where women buy treats for the men in their lives – selling candy and chocolates.

And the lab is developing what it calls a vocaloid opera – which will be performed by a group of singing androids.

The professors are not trying to put actors (or opera singers, museum guides or retail clerks) out of business. But by creating a robot's behaviour on the stage, they are able to study human behaviour, to nail down details – timing, reactions, where to look when we talk or listen – and thus advance their research.

"The theatre is very important for the development of the human-like robot because nobody knows what kind of behaviour is natural as humans in a daily situation," says Ishiguro.

"At the same time, we can provide new tools to the theatre directors. The android will be a very good actor or actress in some sense. And of course it depends on the scenario, but somehow the android can relay the humanity very [well]."

Convergence is at the Banff Centre through Nov. 29.

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