BEIRUT: Following his talk on “Robots and our Future Life” to the packed Issam Fares Auditorium at Notre Dame University’s Faculty of Engineering, a student asked Hiroshi Ishiguro why he had not brought his “geminoid” - a robot designed to look like exactly like Ishiguro, and capable of a degree of interaction with humans. “You only get one of us,” said Ishiguro, but he suggested that it would have been more efficient to send the robot. After all, he joked, “I charge for a business-class flight. I would send him economy.”
The purpose of the lecture, jointly organized by NDU and the Japanese Embassy, was to encourage “interest for the students for the latest trends in research and robotics around the world,” Najib Metni, associate professor and Chairperson of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, told The Daily Star. Judging by the lack of empty seats in the auditorium, many students wanted to hear from the “bad boy” of Japanese robotics. Ishiguro is head of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, and recognized as one of the leading figures worldwide in the field of humanoid robotics.
From his lecture, it’s clear that there is a gulf between the quality of technology in Japanese households compared to those of Lebanese. In an interview with The Daily Star after his talk, Ishiguro said, “The reason is that we cannot spend much money on the house because the Japanese house is so small, and we don’t spend so much money for other purposes [so we] spend the money on technology.”
However, Beirut is also a crowded city dominated by small apartments, albeit not on the scale of Japanese cities. Perhaps, Ishiguro suggests, the technology is more developed and readily available because of Japan’s relatively geopolitical situation, which has been fairly stable since World War II. “Fundamentally,” he said, “Japan is a small island so we don’t have so [many] problems with neighbors.”
Metni is wary about blaming the unstable security situation for Lebanon’s lack of technological development. “We always blame wars [for] everything,” he said. “We do not lack in Lebanon any technological background. We have good education, we have excellent researchers. What we lack is the grants and the support of not only the government but the support of agencies. ... The problem is a lack of funds.”
Ishiguro considers that technological advances from outside Lebanon cannot simply be imported into the country to elevate it to the same level of development as countries like Japan. Driverless cars, for example, cannot be expected to solve the capital’s problems with road congestion. “We cannot use the auto driving systems in a messy environment, it’s quite dangerous,” he said. That does not mean that robots cannot be integrated into the development of infrastructure, however. “If you have construction robots, robots for architecture, you can improve Beirut’s infrastructure more and then I think you can use more advanced technologies.”
Ultimately, Ishiguro recommends that Lebanon needs to develop its own unique relationship with technology. “I believe as China is finding their way to use new technologies, you too can find new ways how to use technologies to improve your situation. Don’t look at Japan, United States, European countries. Your situation is very much different from other countries.”
Ishiguro’s work has another surprising parallel with Lebanon. The country has one of the highest global per capita rates of cosmetic surgery, with almost 80,000 procedures carried out last year. Ishiguro is also striving towards an ideal of beauty. One of his creations is Erica, an android he created by combining the images of 30 women he considered beautiful, and using, for instance, the average dimensions of the women’s nose on his robot.
He believes that androids actually have an advantage over humans in this quest for perfect beauty. “She never gets tired, always smiling, never goes to the toilet. She is not human, right? ... An android can be a perfect beautiful woman but a human cannot be.”
This article was updated on Oct. 16, 2017, clarifying that Najib Metni is an associate professor and Chairperson of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.