~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, June 12th 2012
There are some notable winners at the first Times Eureka Young Science Photographer competition, which is on display at the Royal Institution this week. From Simon Martin’s sad and beautiful portrait of a woman’s aged body—sagging breasts, pleated skin—to Joseph Fox's gentle photographs recording the impact of climate change on a small village on the crumbling Norfolk coast—this is art showing simply what science sometimes finds it difficult to express.
But it was a film of a Japanese man, sitting on an upright chair and blinking, that was the most disturbing. At first glance he looks ordinary enough, but for a stillness and a rather bad wig. It is only when the camera angle changes to include another man in a dark shirt sitting beside him, identical down to his pock-marked cheeks, that the stillness becomes suddenly eerie.
The man on the right says, "Hello, I am Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro."
The man on the left says, "Hello, I am the android of Hiroshi Ishiguro. Geminoid HI-2. I was born in 2006..."
The winner of the moving image category, Luisa Whitton's five-minute film about a Japanese robot offers a glimpse into a future previously only imagined in science fiction. I found it spooky; that a robot could look so human was almost an affront—to humanity and the glorious process of evolution. But this is not the view of the project's pioneer—and robot's doppelgänger—Professor Ishiguro. As he explains in the opening text:
In Eastern cultures, where Shintoism and Buddhism are the main religions, there is no distinction between human and non-human, both can contain kami: a spirit of essence.
Far from being an attack on humanity, Professor Ishiguro sees his robots as an aid to defining it. A better barber is a must; other than that, it wouldn’t take much more than a small development in the programming required to operate the robot (so that it moved more naturally) and it could be virtually impossible to distinguish from a living person? Or is it—with kami—living already?
Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent contributions to the Editors' Blog include Sailing to the Diamond Jubilee and Darwin in my lungs. Samantha will be blogging from the Cheltenham Science Festival later this week.