To famed roboticist and Nissan technology consultant Hiroshi Ishiguro, how well people accept artificial intelligence depends on one thing above all: how human it is. To Ishiguro, a more humanlike presence makes A.I. easier to accept, fostering what he calls “natural interaction” between human and machines.

Hiroshi Ishiguro at the 2019 CES event in Las Vegas

In Las Vegas at CES to help present new in-vehicle technology from Nissan, the shaggy-haired, chill-vibed Ishiguro stood out against a backdrop of businesslike automotive execs. What was he doing there? What did Nissan hire him to do? “Concept building,” Ishiguro said without much elaboration. In the competitive field of technology where secrecy rules, we can’t blame Ishiguro for being tight-lipped. To really understand why Nissan hired him, you need to know more about Ishiguro and his work.



Hiroshi Ishiguro

Blessing the lifeless with life is a specialized trade. In this small but important field, there’s an elite group of innovators/leaders. Fittingly, Ishiguro’s the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, part of the Department of Systems Innovation in the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University in Japan. That’s just his day job. On the side, he’s a bit of an internet sensation.

Search his name online, you’ll see Ishiguro with eerily realistic androids he’s built – some of which have become internet celebrities in their own right. Among his creations are some of the most lifelike androids the world has seen, including Geminoid HI-1, Ishiguro’s virtual twin. The two so are strikingly similar, it’s actually difficult to tell them apart. After witnessing the artistry of these robots, Ishiguro’s previous calling should come as no surprise: He was once an aspiring oil painter.


In building his robots, Ishiguro’s honed in on what it means to be human – the nonverbal cues, the natural speech irregularities, the nuances that separate us from robots. He believes that his findings are integral to all the A.I. machines that humans will interact with in the future, the least of which are traditional robots. Technology companies are searching more and more for ways to give everyday devices and machines a more humanlike interface, and Ishiguro can help. 

“A machine that has a friendly voice today, will have a friendly face tomorrow.”

Hiroshi Ishiguro with Geminoid

“Everything is going to be humanlike in the future,” he says, and it’s difficult to disagree. With at-home assistants becoming as ubiquitous as microwaves, it’s becoming increasingly common to see humans interact with machinery rather than operate it. A machine with a friendly voice today can become a friendly face tomorrow.

Hiroshi Ishiguro with Geminoid


As he pontificates on the future of A.I., Ishiguro makes an excellent point about the value of emotion in human/machine interaction. He gives the example of a mapping smartphone app that says voice directions to the driver of a car. In monotone robo-speak, Ishiguro reasons, certain things cannot be communicated, like a sense of urgency.

To Ishiguro, a navigation unit that says “Please stop” with a stern, serious tone is far more meaningful – it means your next navigational maneuver must happen NOW. Spoken calmly, this command conveys less urgency, meaning you probably don’t need to act immediately. Emotion, to Ishiguro, communicates valuable information to people, and our machines must learn to communicate it to us through verbal and nonverbal cues.


Conversing with Ishiguro reveals a widely held misconception about robots: the idea that the first robot we interact with will be the prototypical metal cyborg seen often in films. In reality, our first robots will probably be machines we already know, just with a little extra A.I. and a healthy dose of humanlike gestures.

The machine he would like to humanize most? Easy answer. The automobile, to Ishiguro, is like a “big robot” that we can make “more humanlike.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to humans adopting autonomous vehicles is one of trust. Would it be less scary to let a car drive you through rush traffic if the car had a face, a voice, and a calming demeanor? Time will tell.




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