Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Sonzai Kan and Social Robots

The Japanese have a word, sonzai-kan, which roughly translates as "presence." It's what we feel when someone is standing next to us. Film maker Phie Ambo explores this idea with robotics engineer, Hiroshi Ishiguro, creator of highly sophisticated androids in her latest documentary, Mechanical Love. Ishiguro is interested in the conveyance of sonzai-kan, or human presence, and the best way to evoke this sensation of “presence” within a robot’s human social partner. Or, wonders Ishiguro, will it be found that highly anthropomorphic social robots are always regarded as uncanny and strange, as roboticist Masahiro Mori (1970) once conjectured? “Simply put, what gives something a social presence? Is it mainly behaviour, or is there instead some complex interplay between appearance and behaviour?” (MacDorman and Ishiguro, 2005, p. 1).

Below is a clip from Ambo's film, Mechanical Love, which illustrates the idea of senzai-kan with considerable poignancy.

Sherry Turkle undertook a study to examine the interaction between senior adults and this robotic baby harp seal and found that Paro (the seal) elicited considerable feelings of admiration, loving behavior, and curiosity from her (its?) human partners. Turkle felt however, that the robot seal raised difficult “questions about what kind of authenticity we require of our technology. Do we want robots saying things that they could not possibly ‘mean’? What kinds of relationships do we think are most appropriate for our children and our elders to have with relational artifacts?” (Turkle, 2006, p. 360)

Authenticity, said Turkle during a recent MIT talk about sociable robots, "The Robotic Moment and the American Heart: What can we make of our reactions to relational, sociable robotics?", and I'm paraphrasing here, 'is the equivalent of Victorian sex. Authenticity is a concept that repels and attracts; frightens and fascinates our culture at this time.'

Walter Benjamin proclaimed that what withers and is lost in the age of mechanical reproduction is "aura," something akin to sonzai-kan. Yet, the idea that humanoid robots might be capable of engendering feelings of sonzai-kan opens the question of whether sonzai-kan or aura isn't a human generated, and projected, quality in the first place.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only the Lonely...

Interesting stuff Glen, I am so fascinated by your work right now.

Sonzai-kan, this was the term we spoke about on the phone? I read the Turkle quote... I am thinking about it. I think the questions is "what authenticity do we require in our human relationships?"

I have great fear when I think that presence/aura/soul is simply a human projection... because I believe that life is sacred, so too are the interactions of humans (on our best days).

So far it seems that the excluded and isolated are the only ones who are developing "relationships" with robots. I just think it is so sad.