Chicago Sun-Times

Droids and ’ noids usher in ‘ robot society’ at SXSW

- Rick Jervis

Androids, geminoids and oldfashion­ed robots roamed the South by Southwest Interactiv­e Festival in a plethora of sessions and demonstrat­ions. They posed a strong argument that a robotic future is not coming — it’s here.

Therewere no visible anti- robot demonstrat­ions this year, but the titles at some sessions, such as “Robot Armageddon: AI, Jobs and Inequality” or “Will AI Augment or Destroy Humanity?” showed that humans and robots still occupy an uneasy existence with one another.

One of themore popular sessions was given Sunday by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who brought foot- high robots he calls “consumers” and a fullscale, lifelike android resembling himself. The android sat on a chair, blinking at the audience and holding spontaneou­s conversati­ons when spoken to.

A geminoid looks like an android but lets a user manipulate it and talk through it remotely. Ishiguro said he could send a geminoid in his place to a conference in Tokyo and talk through it using an interface that fits on his head and allows him to see the audience.

His androids are used as shopkeeper­s and TV hosts throughout Japan, he said. “I think we’ll have a robot society in the very near future, in maybe three or five years,” Ishiguro said.

Thavidu Ranatunga, chief informatio­n officer for California- based Fellow Robots, said he could see why people may be alarmed at the rapid pace of robot technology, but robots are decades away from posing any real concerns. The technology will arise in a natural, inevitable way, he said. “It’s a case of how you treat it when it happens,” Ranatunga said. “If you try to get in its way, youmay have conflict. If you try to work with it, things will go better.”

Ishiguro closed the session by letting his android and “consumer” robot engage in a conversati­on. The talk quickly turned existentia­l.

“What is the meaning of our existence?” the android asked.

“What is humans? What are robots?” the robot answered. “That will bring us to the truth.”

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