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Androids offer window into humanity at SXSW festival in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas, March 15 (Reuters) - Android pioneer Hiroshi Ishiguro has to clarify something to his tech-savvy Austin, Texas, audience, so he smiles beneath his long, dark bangs and points to his identical twin nodding and blinking on a chair across the stage.

“That is not myself,” he says, to laughter from the crowd, “That is a robot.”

Indeed he was, a “Geminoid” referred to as “This Guy” by Ishiguro, a leading researcher in the field of androids - robots with human-like appearance. The Osaka University professor’s vision of a robot society is on display this week at the South by Southwest music, film, and interactive festival in Austin.

This Guy was holding court at the Japan House’s “Extension of Humanity” event at a bar on historic Sixth Street, using English skills acquired specifically for SXSW.

“I heard this heavy metal band that plays polka,” he told one visitor during a discussion about favorite types of music.

The Geminoid’s unassisted conversational skills are based on technologies that allow him to carry on a discussion without pre-recorded sentences or a human pushing buttons. He listens and replies.

The Geminoid is a popular member of Ishiguro’s android team of human-like robots. They are ambassadors from Ishiguro’s envisioned future in which robots deliver information, assist the public, and, at times, comfort the soul.

The group at SXSW also included the Telenoid, which looks neither lifelike nor particularly robotic.

In experiments by Ishiguro and fellow researchers, the Telenoid helped to draw out some dementia patients who were wary of interaction with human-like robots but spoke freely to and hugged the legless, armless Telenoid with the kind face and sweet voice.

“This is a very powerful tool to bridge two people,” Ishiguro said. “You can change your life.”

The cutting-edge android research is happening at the Department of Systems Innovation at the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University, where Ishiguro is a distinguished professor.

The benefits of a robot society include breakthroughs with autistic children and the breakdown of barriers to learning new languages, he said.

In addition, creating a robot society, in which androids are accepted by humans, offers rare and precious opportunities for examining the nature of humans, Ishiguro told his Austin audience.

“What is the meaning of our existence?” This Guy asked, turning toward the Telenoid.

The Telenoid, nodding its stark-white head, replied: “The question is the same - What are humans? What are robots? That will bring us to the truth.” (Reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Dan Grebler)