Misunderstandings are a perennial problem in telephone conversations, as so much of normal communication is done through expressions and gestures.

But in the not very distant future it may be possible to avoid such communication hiccups.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, one of Japan’s foremost roboticists, this year led the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) in unveiling Elfoid P1, a prototype portable tele-operated android that aims to convey the human presence that is missing from a phone conversation.

Elfoid P1 is a mobile-phone-sized android with soft urethane gel skin equipped with NTT DoCoMo mobile phone technology. It is intended to be genderless and ageless, so the recipient of the call can more easily imagine that it embodies the characteristics of the caller.

The aim is to equip Elfoid P1 with motors to enable it to move like its big brother – Telenoid R1, also developed by Prof Ishiguro.

Telenoid mimics the expressions and basic movements of the caller through tele-operation and motion-capture technology.

Prof Ishiguro and his team hope that Elfoid P1, by combining voice, movement, touch and imagination, will convey a believable physical representation of the caller and create a new form of communication.

Prof Ishiguro’s focus on human-robot interaction and the nature of human presence is increasingly important, as Japan struggles to cope with a demographic time-bomb. The population is ageing rapidly, but the country is unwilling to open its doors to immigration and rebalance its population that way. Japan appears much more willing on adopting robots.

Jennifer Robertson, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor, wrote in her paper Robo Sapiens Japanicus about the importance to the way in which robots are perceived in Japan of the country’s Shinto animistic belief system, where “vital forces” are present in everything from mountains to man-made objects.

She explained that the “vital energies” known as kami are present in all aspects of the world including human creations.

She added that in the Japanese word for life, inochi, the meaning includes “the most essential quality of something, whether a living thing or a made object, such as a puppet” and in this sense a robot can be perceived as “very much a part of the natural world”.

Prof Ishiguro says that not all robots need to be humanoid, but for those that are going to take on human jobs, such as receptionists, having a human presence is important – people want to imagine they are dealing with humans.

Perhaps Prof Ishiguro’s most visually startling robot, on which Elfoid and Telenoid were based, is his prosthetic doppelgänger, Geminoid HI-1, which cost about $1m to develop.

It is a hybrid of human and robot that relays speech delivered from a remote location through the internet, and makes use of motion-capture technology to recreate his movements. This means his twin, which contains 42 motors for moving the upper torso, can recreate his verbal and physical presence anywhere else in the world.

He has also developed a cheaper, female version, Geminoid F, with fewer functions, which appeared in a theatre production last year.

He has used his geminoids to give lectures to small groups of students without being present in the room. He suggests there is actually an advantage to him not being in the room, as “my presence is too strong” and a humanoid has a “calmer” social presence.

Japanese developers of humanoid robots tend to give their creations names and some form of character.

Prof Robertson argued in her paper: “In Japan, humanoid robots …not only have a character, but they are regarded as and referred to as ‘persons’ – not ‘as if’ they were persons, but as persons.”

It is not only humanoids that are given names and characters, though. Professor Akiyoshi Kabe from Waseda University and his students have developed Jukusui-Kun, or Master Deep Sleep, a robot in the form of a fluffy panda that stops people snoring.

Jukusui-Kun uses a combination of sensors and a microphone to detect and analyse the volume of a snore and breathing regularity, alongside a pulse oxygen meter that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood, which will drop because of sleep apnoea, the disorder that causes snoring.

When preset levels are reached, the computer activates the paw of Jukusui-Kun, who gently waves it close to the face of the patient, creating a big enough disturbance to trigger a shift in body position, generally on to the side where breathing will be easier.

In more extreme circumstances where health may be at risk, Jukusui-Kun will be more aggressive and wake up the patient. Prof Kabe hopes to get the robot commercialised, although that may be years away.

While Prof Ishiguro’s Elfoid P1 aims to bring the human physical presence to phone calls, Prof Kabe is also working on another “panda” robot called Herby, to act as a companion for elderly and lonely pensioners. “[It’s part of] healthcare to make elderly people smile,” Prof Kabe says.

The gap between humans and robots is already not as wide in Japan as in other cultures.

A further fall in the birth rate could well make that relationship even closer.

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