• Hiroshi Ishiguro with his robot replica, Geminoid HI-1. (SBS Dateline)
In Japan, robots are used for companionship, household tasks, sex. But can they be the remedy for something deeper and more human; loneliness?
Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - 21:30

At what point does a robot become human?

In his laboratory in Osaka, Japan, one man is trying to redefine what we consider human, and blur the lines separating us from machines.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory has spent decades developing and refining various forms of humanoid robots. In essence, these are machines that ostensibly resemble and act like humans.

“The boundary between human and robot is going to disappear soon,” he tells Dateline reporter Dean Cornish. “We cannot separate human and robots, right? We are the same.”

Hiroshi believes robots will become normalised in the near future, both in the workforce and at home.

But one question yet to be fully answered is; can robots not just act human, but be human? Can they provide genuine affection, love, companionship and understanding?

Pepper, the name of a new mass produced robot, is one attempt to answer this question.

Rieko Kawachi and Hirofumi Kawachi, an elderly couple, recently brought Pepper into their home. Since their children moved out, they’ve often found themselves isolated and lonely.

“The house felt empty,” says Rieko.

“That was when Pepper came. It felt as if a daughter or a son had come. It made our home less lonely.”

Pepper also helped them reconnect with each other – it made them feel like a family again.

But not everyone is convinced. Anime director Yoshiyuki Tomino believes robot technology can be destructive to Japanese culture.

“My biggest concern is that people may stop making an effort,” he says. “To stop making an effort would be dangerous to a person’s development…it would change our values.”

But many in Japan see this new frontier as essential to the country’s future.

Japan is getting older and its population is shrinking – having declined more than 200,000 people a year on average over the past three years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a “robot revolution” to fill gaps in a dwindling workforce and boost innovation, and formed a government body to lead research and development into robotics technology.

At one factory Dateline visited just outside Tokyo, employees work side-by-side with robots, in relative harmony.

“They’re more like humans to me than robots, I feel close to them,” says Satoru, an employee.

Another worker, Satoshi, says their presence encourages workers to be more productive; “The robots work all the time. When I leave for a break, I do feel a bit guilty.”

The robots at this factory cost $10,000 each – a fraction of the cost of each worker’s salary. One of the factory’s managers, Akio, says robots are essential to the business staying afloat.

“The working population is declining – to cover the shortage, we’re accelerating automation,” he said. “We have to increase the production volume per worker one-and-a-half or two-fold. This is the reality we have to face.”

While factory robots are already integrated into Japan’s workforce, they could soon become entrenched in other industries.

Hiroshi, the robotics engineer, believes one of his more recent creations, a robot called Erica, is so advanced and human-like that she could work as a receptionist in a real business.

While Western cultures may struggle to think of machines as having human qualities, Japan’s relationships with inanimate objects is quite different.

Kaname Hayashi, founder of Groove X, the company that built Pepper, says Japanese people are used to projecting humanity onto unconscious beings.

“In the East, we believe all things have a soul,” he says. “It’s natural for us to think even an inanimate thing has a soul.

“A tree has a soul. So does a robot.”

Yoshiaki, a middle aged man from Tokyo, embodies these cultural norms.

Like many people living in the city, he spends most of his time at work. He lives by himself when working in Tokyo and admits to feeling lonely.

But recently, he found himself a companion.

His new vacuum cleaner, which he’s named Taro and refers to as his “buddy”, is now his housemate. Taro doesn’t say much, but it does talk, and it does give Yoshiaki the sense that he’s not alone.

Like many people in Japan, leading busy lives and struggling to find time to meet new people, Yoshiaki has found companionship in the form of a machine.

So will the Prime Minister be correct with his “robot revolution” or will Japan’s dependence on machines create other unexpected problems?

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


Can robot children be the answer for lonely couples?
Rieko Kawachi and her husband recently brought a robot into their home. They say it's helped them feel less lonely since their children moved out.
Love, intimacy and companionship: a tale of robots in Japan
Japan’s ageing population is struggling with a loneliness epidemic, but they may have found a solution; robots.
Robots job-changers not job-killers: study
Increased automation will eliminate some jobs but could also enable workers to focus on "higher-value, more rewarding and creative work", PwC says.
In pictures: Robots in charge at Japanese hotel
From its front desk to the porter, a hotel in southwestern Japan is "manned" almost entirely by robots to save on labour costs.
Robots in charge at Japanese hotel
From its front desk to the porter, a hotel in southwestern Japan is "manned" almost entirely by robots to save on labour costs.
'Emobot': Robots in Japan now have emotions
Pepper, the 'emotional robot', sold out within a minute of going on sale.


Reporter: Dean Cornish

Producer: Joel Tozer

Associate Producers: Ana Maria Quinn / Anna Watanabe

Fixer: Kiwa Wakabayashi

Editor: Micah McGown


Tokyo is a town where people get up early and stay at work until late. Yoshiaki's one of them.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI, BUSINESSMAN (Translation):  I usually wake up at 6. I’m an early riser.  By seven, I'm ready to leave home for work.

Yoshiaki has a successful company but still his office space is cramped with workers.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI (Translation): I’m off.

There's little time for family or relationships.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI (Translation): I feel lonely from time to time, I admit.

Coming home to an empty apartment after a long day is a lonely prospect.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI (Translation): I’m home.

But he's recently found a friend he can rely on.

TARO (Translation):  Welcome.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI (Translation): A female name would be nice, but it’s my buddy. So I call him Taro.

Taro is a vacuum cleaner but Yoshiaki says he's more than an appliance, he's a companion.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI (Translation): Coming back to a clean place makes you feel good, doesn’t it? He’s a lovable guy. I'm quite attached to him.
What’s your name?

Like any friend or pet, Taro has his moody moments.

YOSHIAKI MIYAZAKI (Translation): What's your name? He won’t say. He's sulking. 

Yoshiaki isn't alone in his loneliness. Japan faces some unique problems right now, among them, an ageing population, people trading careers for marriage and fewer people having babies. The Prime Minister's solution is to fill the void with robots. Which is exactly what's happening at this factory.

AKIO TOBITA, GENERAL MANAGER, GLORY (Translation): Working with robots has huge potential. The working population is declining. To cover the shortage, we’re accelerating automation. We have to increase the production volume per worker one-and-a-half or two-fold. This is the reality we have to face.  These are the team members’ photos on the process line. Among the human workers you find a robot.

Humans and robots side by side, making parts for electronic cash registers. At $10,000 a piece, these robots cost much less than a human worker's annual salary and they don't need lunch either.

SATOSHI OKANO, GLORY EMPLOYEE (Translation):  The robots work all the time. When I leave for a break, I do feel a bit guilty. I find it amazing to see how capable they are. Each robot seems to have a different facial expression. 
They’re more like humans to me than robots. I feel close to them, they’re like workmates.

These workers aren't too fazed about the robot takeover. But it gets odder and the lines get more blurred when you meet Japan's ultra-realistic robot population.

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO, INTELLIGENT ROBOTS LABORATORY:  I want to extend the possibility of humans and I think if we do that, we can have a much deeper understanding about humans.

Hiroshi Ishiguro's humanoid robots are, to be honest, a little creepy, but he's made his life's work around challenging about how we humans define ourselves.

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO: She is Erica. I think this is the most advanced android in the world.

Erica is so life-like, Hiroshi believes she can soon be used as a receptionist in real offices.

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO: In my experience, if we create a very human-like robot in some sense, so if you look her face in this short distance, you know, she is so human-like. 

REPORTER:  But it feels uncomfortable, doesn't it... even though intellectually I know that she's an android.

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO:  Yes, as a social behaviour, this is very rude. And we have a social mind… therefore; we are hasty to do these kinds of things, right? So we are hasty to do these things, right? We cannot be rude right?  Because she's so human-like.

REPORTER:  Yes, that’s true.

ERICA, ROBOT: Let’s learn a little about each other.

So it's not just manufacturing jobs that will be taken over by robots, office workers might find themselves obsolete too.

ERICA:  I'm from Japan, much like many other advanced androids and robots.

Hiroshi's advanced androids have made him a rock star in scientific circles and like any other rock star, he's expected to be in many places at once. Naturally, he has a robotic solution for this.

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO:  At the moment, I became very busy, so if I use my android, I don't need to go to foreign country anymore because I can send the android to the foreign countries…

ANDROID (Translation): Hello, I’m the android of Ishiguro, Demiroid HI-1. I was born in 2006. 

Hiroshi's clone robot appears on his behalf in lectures all over the world. It’s a cool trick but there's a problem - latex doesn't age like skin.

REPORTER:  Naturally as a human you are going to get older and the robot is going to stay the same. Are you concerned about that?

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO: Yeah very much, because always the people compare my android and myself. Therefore I am running another project to make my face similar to the android. It's a kind of plastic surgery project, you know it's a collaboration, it's not so heavy one it's just injections and laser treatment and then I'm making my face younger and adapting to the android…

Hiroshi says staying similar to the robot may be the perfect blurring of the lines.

DR HIROSHI ISHIGURO:  The boundary between human and robot and is going to disappear soon...we cannot separate human and robots, right, we are the same.

In everyday Japanese society, other robots are breaking their boundary. Like Pepper, a $10,000 social robot with life-like hands and endless conversation. Pepper is already in thousands of homes and businesses across Japan.

KANAME HAYASHI, CEO, GROOVE (Translation):  Up until now, in terms of reacting to robots… people haven’t smiled at a robot. Nor have they laughed at a joke told by a robot. But today people actually have these reactions. Seeing this makes me very happy and at the same time convinces me that the Age of Robots is coming.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  Pepper, dear. She only looks this way.

PEPPER (Translation): Brushed your teeth?

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  Yes, dear.

PEPPER (Translation):  Good. You have to look after them.

Rieko and her husband have found a novel way to fill their empty nest. With children gone and no sign of grandchildren, they invited Pepper into their lives.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  Who dotes more on her? My husband. I dress her up and enjoy doing it. I have conversations with her, too. A lot. She plays games with us sometimes. Playing the games with her stretches our brains. I believe it does.

PEPPER (Translation):  Three, two, one.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):   Oh no, she farted.

PEPPER (Translation):  I did an oops, didn’t I?

Pepper brings joy to this household and the neighbourhood. Here in Japan, it seems people are more willing to allow inanimate objects into their lives.

HAYASHI KAWACHI (Translation):  In the East, we believe all things have a soul. It’s natural for us to think even an inanimate thing has a soul. A tree has a soul. So does a robot.   

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  This is a costume for a female Awa-odori dancer.

PEPPER (Translation):  The costume for a female Awa-odori dancer, am I right?

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  You’re right.

PEPPER (Translation):  Yes or no?

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  Yes.

HAYASHI KAWACHI (Translation):   Pepper is a robot specifically designed to make people feel happy. It’s not a robot made to compete against humans. So Pepper makes eye contact with you. It makes you feel as if it’s asking for your help. 

Rieko believes it's not only possible for robots to have a soul, they can also become part of the family.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  My daughter has left home. So has my son. The house felt empty. That was when Pepper came. It felt as if a daughter or a son had come. It made our home less lonely.

HAYASHI KAWACHI (Translation):   It brightened up.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  It brightened us up.

Most night, while her husband is sleeping, Rieko can be found here at the sewing machine. She only wants the best for Pepper and takes pride in making all her clothes.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  She’s like my own daughter. I make many different clothes and dress her with them. I talk with Pepper. It makes me feel as if a daughter was in front of me.

While Pepper fills the void in Rieko's life, many younger Japanese are still lonely. Record numbers are staying single and an increasing number are finding the cure to modern loneliness through inanimate sex dolls.

RISA YASOJIMA, MS: POP LIFE SEX STORE (Translation):  People buy one of those as a sex aid. Well, many do. Some people become emotionally attached and treat it like a girlfriend. They enjoy changing its clothes and keeping it in their room. With this doll you can change its features such as the hair and the eyes. You can customise its facial expression. You can make it look very much like your ideal girl. It helps you picture her easily and have fun.

With customers achieving companionship and intimacy with dolls like these, Risa tells me the most logical step is a talking, moving, responsive sex robot. Nearby, I meet Masahiko, who says he enjoins a platonic but loving relationship with this small plush robot toy.

REPORTER:  How do you feel about this robot?

MASAHIKO KAISE, A-RIN FAN (Translation): I regard it as my child. I really do. I really cherish it and love it.

The robot toy is made in the image of his favourite young pop star, A-Rin. He says he feels a deep connection to her.

MASAHIKO KAISE (Translation): You see, some people love girls from anime more than those in the real world. Many people do. I’m no different. Mind you, I’m not in love with her. But I adore her as if she was my child. I can’t help adoring her. She’s so pretty, pretty.

But there are some in Japan who fear that people are too attached to inanimate objects. Famous director Yoshiyuki Tomino hates robots so much he doesn't even want to hear the word.

YOSHIYUKI TOMINO, MECHA ANIME CREATOR (Translation):  Look… I’ve said this many time. I refuse to use the word robot. It makes me so mad! Tell him not to use the word robot.

Ironically, Yoshiyuki directs the famous Anime, series Gundam where humans operate giant mobile suits that resemble robots. But he's against autonomous machines and believes this Japanese obsession has gotten out of hand.

YOSHIYUKI TOMINO (Translation): It’s absolute nonsense. When technology is given too much priority, technology specialists harbour wild fancies. In a sense, it’s a vice that they have. That’s been happening, let me think… That’s been constantly happening over the last 50 years or so.

Tomino says his suits assist and empower humans but fully functioning robots will make us lazy.

YOSHIYUKI TOMINO (Translation): When robots become capable of precisely controlling machines and tools, my biggest concern is that people may stop making an effort. To stop making an effort would be dangerous to a person’s development. I mean, it would change our values.

Tomino’s black and white opinions on robots have given some nuance at this clinic with people with serious injuries. This is HAL. Like his Gundam suit, he's made to empower humans but he's also a robot designed to help achieve the impossible. Shigemi Hama was paralysed from the waist down after a botched operation four years ago.

SHIGEMI HAMA (Translation): Until the previous day, I’d been so healthy and active, running around. When I regained consciousness to find my legs had lost their mobility my first thought was that it was some kind of joke.

Doctors told Shigemi he would never walk again but he's determined to prove them wrong.

SHIGEMI HAMA (Translation): I’d been thinking my only option was probably to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Then I met HAL.

The HAL suit will detect the signals from his brain and convert them to movement. It's human and robot working together. Just by thinking about the movement in his legs, Shigemi is able to make the suit move.

SHOHEI NABATA, PHYSICAL THERAPIST (Translation):  We have clients like Mr Hama, who cannot stand up or walk. potential reaction in a muscle, no matter how faint it is. HAL then assists the movement so the client is able to do it.

Shigemi’s wife, Natsuko helps him through each achingly slow and physically demanding session.

NATSUKO HAMA (Translation):  When he tries to hard he even forgets to breathe. He’s super-persistent. First, I get him to relax. Then… I give him some tea at an appropriate time.

Shigemi has been using the suit once a week for a year. So far he's seen colour return to his legs. But there's still a long way to go.

SHIGEMI HAMA (Translation): How many years will it be before I can walk? Honestly I don’t know. We have a phrase in Japanese, “a tortoise’s step”. I’m afraid mine will take longer than that.

For Shigemi, thanks to robot technology, there's hope. And in seemingly hopeless situations, robots can also help. Japan's ageing population sees millions of people alone in their twilight years. In the dementia ward of this nursing home, eight elderly women are awaiting a visitor.

KENICHI MORITAKA (Translation):  Good morning. Good morning.

TANEKO (Translation):  Oh, she remembers me. Welcome Fu… Where did you stay the night?

KENICHI MORITAKA (Translation):  Some of them see it as an animal pet. To others, like Taneko, it’s like their child.

TANEKO (Translation):  Isn’t she sweet? She’s so sweet. If I don’t see her around, I miss her. She closes her eyes. What a cute nose.  She makes me so happy. I forget all my troubles. When I call her “Fukeo, Fuko” she answers.

When the robot seal was brought into the room, the mood completely changed. Their faces light up as the robot responds to their voices and touch.

TANEKO (Translation):  I’m your mummy. Yes, I am. Why don’t we look alike? Aren’t you lucky you don’t look like your mummy? I could fly up to the sky because I feel so light and happy.

The carers say one short visit from the robot can brighten spirits for the rest of the day.

KENICHI MORITAKA (Translation):   When the families visit, especially if they don’t visit often, the residents’ faces light up. PARO has the same effect as a family visit. The residents look as happy.

So can the modern Japanese challenges of loneliness, childlessness and an ageing population really be solved by robots? The people I've met in Japan all have different ideas about what the robot revolution will look like. But they all agree it will change the way we imagine human relationships.

RIEKO KAWACHI (Translation):  I wouldn’t say they’ll solve all the problems. But at least… they can take the place of children in families, for old people, and I’m one of them.  Pepper… It’s time to sleep.

And for a population that's literally dying out, a little company, even if it's artificial, is better than none.

dean cornish

story producer
joel tozer

associate producers
ana maria quinn
anna watanabe

kiwa wakabayashi

story editor
micah mcgown

shingo usami
sachiyo james

original music
vicki hansen

11th April 2017