Mechanical Love, by the Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo, starts with shots of a bamboo forest in Japan, a plant that traditionally symbolizes strength of character and sense of self and, because it easily bends without breaking, grace as well. These images, accompanied with the sound of its leaves in the wind, intercut with close-ups of wires and electronics, set the tone of the film, which from then on enters a world of silicon and circuits in robotic labs presenting human-machine interactions.
Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University < www.ed.ams.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp/ >, presents his studies of humanlike presence using tele-operated “geminoids,” whereby sound (voice) and movement can be steered remotely through Internet connection during an interaction with a human person. Their difference with “humanoids” (robots in the shape of humans) and “androids” (robots that look and move like humans) is that “geminoids”—a term deriving from “twin”—resemble a specific person. Following earlier experiments, where Ishiguro’s then four-year-old daughter Lisa met her look-alike geminoid, the documentary guides us through the preparatory phase in the labs of a first test-run with Ishiguro’s own “double” geminoid to meet his daughter and wife. Ishiguro points out that, whereas working with androids challenges issues of human likeness, with geminoids he had to ask: “What is human presence?”
The sequences in Ishiguro’s lab are intercut with a parallel track filmed in elderly homes in Europe (Germany, Italy, Denmark), showing peoples’ engagement with Paro, a “sociable robot” that feeds back reactive behaviors. In contrast to the digital toy pet market, including Tamagotchis, Paro appears in the shape of a white baby seal robot, 57 cm long with a weight of 2.7 kg, equipped with sound localization, speech recognition sensors and sensation pads. This particular version of cybercompanionship—what a study at MIT termed as “relational artefact” —is advertised as a “mental commitment robot” and in the documentary is presented by its inventor as a welfare or therapeutic robot < www.paro.jp/english/ >. Since its development for health care environments by Takanori Shibata, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), various studies have been conducted to examine its potential to enhance social engagement of the elderly . These intercuts are touching in their humanness; however they are difficult to validate in relation to the timeframe of people’s engagement with the robot toy, since there is no indication of whether the initial fascination endures. Phie Ambo does, however, situate the human-machine interaction in the broader context of a residential home in Germany. She presents, for example, the residents’ opinions about a woman who lives with a new “pet” that won’t stop squeaking while the choir practices Christmas songs; she challenges as well as introduces sets of interactive social behaviors.
The documentary is well directed and dramaturgically composed, and gradually leads to the climax of the film: the anticipated experiment that will expose Ishiguro’s geminoid to his family. The compositional contrast between single elderly residents in homes and an apparently fully functional Japanese family (despite the fact that Ishiguro ambiguously refers to himself in family life as an automaton) is well chosen to contrast perspectives. These should be viewed in their specific social and cultural environments and interrelations rather than, as some Internet references suggest, in a problematic split between “East” and “West”—(apart from the fact that the case studies are far too selective and small in scope for a valid comparison). Both Hiroshi Ishiguro and his wife, who appears only at the end of the film during this experiment, express a willingness to consider swapping their partner with a geminoid. Their seriousness appears relative in the context of the circumstances, and in this sense their engagement with, and comments about, this form of “virtual reality” is reminiscent of presence-related interactive art, as is reported, for example, from experiences in interaction with telematic installation art. Their daughter, Lisa...