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Monday, February 16, 2009

Robot of the Day: Wakamaru, the Robot Actor and Salesman

On the second day of the Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) 2010 conference, Dr. Ishiguro, one of the main organizers of this year's HRI conference, led us to a small traditional Japanese theater, and presented us a robotic play titled Hataraku Watashi (I, Worker), where I finally had the pleasure to meet the famous robot actor (and actress) in person. I have heard of them and their play from news media a long time ago.

The two robots stared in the theatrical production are the Wakamura robots made by Mitsubishi, named after the child name of a famous ancient Japanese general, although these yellow, 1 meter tall, and 30 kg robots were originally designed for companionship for elderly and disabled, selling at a hefty price of $14000 each.

The project was headed by Dr. Ishiguro at Osaka University, who sent his grad students to theater classes and also invited famous Japanese playwright, Oriza Hirata, to write a story. The result was a 20-minute piece named I, worker starring two Wakamura robots alongside two human actors. The robots played two depressed household servants who work for a young couple. Learning from the young couple's life experience, the robots grew tired of their mundane lifestyle and longed to break free and see the world.

Although the robots are not capable of facial expressions, their head and limb movements and the autonomous navigation capabilities successfully conveyed the depressing feeling to the audience. Most of the audience that day did not speak Japanese, but fortunately, Dillon, an American who works at ATR research institute in Osaka volunteered the translation on a big monitor, so we were able to follow the story. One interesting thing we noticed was that the robots apologized a lot, probably due to Japanese culture. The video below shows sections of the play in Japanese.


Since the robots were playing robots in the play, it is pretty hard to beat their performance with real human actors, but when asked about how they felt about the two robots in rehearsals and the real play, the human actor and actress actually almost thought of these robots as real human actors. So what if one day we have plays that comprise of robot actors only, when robots are becoming more sophisticated? What if one day we start to see robots sitting in the audience together with human? Don't think that would be interesting and entertaining by itself?

Other than acting, these Wakamaru robots are also acting as salesman in clothing stores now, and one found a job in a Uniqlo store in downtown New York. This robot is not only capable of conversations, it can also recommend promotions to customers, and best of all, it even asks customers to exercise with it, something that could be in great demand here in the US where obesity is a severe problem.



Video of the Day:

I also saw this at the HRI conference (yes, it's a chimpanzee, not a robot), and thought you'd all get a kick out of it!