When photographer Luisa Whitton traveled to Japan in 2010, she planned a trip to visit the nation’s top roboticists and their increasingly life-like creations. As she interviewed scientists who made robots with silicon faces that blinked and pursed their lips, she kept returning to one question: What does it mean to be human?
The answer isn’t always very clear. Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of Japan’s top roboticists at Osaka University, built a replica of himself he calls the Geminoid. When Whitton went to interview him, he told her about how infusing Sonzai-Kan, a Japanese term for a person’s spirit or presence, into robotics has become the focal point of his research. But Ishiguro himself is now brushing up against the discomfort of relating too to his “other”–he famously had plastic surgery to combat his naturally aging face against Geminoid’s static one.
“I was initially drawn to the uncanny and surrealistic aspect to Ishiguro’ story, and this area of robotics, specifically in Japan, has a prolific reputation in pushing the boundaries between science, art and philosophy,” Whitton tells Co.Exist by email. “The relationship between Hiroshi and robot is a prime example of how technology can affect the human condition, and perhaps for Hiroshi alone what it means to be human for himself.”
Whitton interviewed a number of roboticists like Ishiguro and documented their work in video and and photographs. The most uncanny experience she had herself is when she operated a robot remotely through a headpiece and gloves at the University of Keio. By putting on the headset and gloves and immersing herself in the world through the robot’s perspective, she was able to feel her environment as if she were the robot.
But even if most humans don’t have access to the kind of phantasmagoric technology Whitton’s been following, there’s no doubt that the line between the human and machine is becoming thinner every day. Google Glass comes as one easy example, but advances in prosthesis, health tracking technology, or even the attachment a person feels to a smartphone (rendered, for example, by Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s relationship in Her) make up a bigger universe of human-technological interactions that challenge traditional ideas of personhood.
Whitton’s now running a Kickstarter campaign to fund another trip to Japan. To support her work, click here.