The Practice of Clothing Robots"

A Cultural Production "brownbag" presentation by Alessandra Sabelli (graduate student in Cultural Production)

Faculty respondents: Andreas Teuber and Thomas King

Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 12:00 p.m. (Brown 218)


At the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory of Osaka University, humanoids and androids possessing a human figure are dressed with clothing to cover their otherwise “naked” bodies. Why should this be the case? Are scientists themselves "embarrassed" to see unclothed figurines, or are the robots understood, at some level, to be sentient beings possessed of a right to privacy?
with faculty respondents Tom King & Andreas Teuber


In Japan, the development of humanoids and androids has become more and more popular in the past decades. Humanoids and androids, ever more faithful replications of humans both in appearance and behavior, are meant to become human companions in Prof. Ishiguro’s view at the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory of Osaka University. His view is supported by the practice of clothing robots, born spontaneously among his staff and students.
Humanoids frame the desire of humans to animate objects. The staff and students in Ishiguro’s labs tend to dress the humanoids they work with, and rationalize clothing a robot merely as a device to distinguish between otherwise identical robots. Among the many possibilities to differentiate between identical robots, for instance with the use of colors, stickers, etc, providing a humanoid with clothing is quite of a peculiar nature. Mini-humanoids are dressed in baby clothing because of their size, inheriting the cuteness and the playful association of baby dolls and miniatures. Like for dolls, the act of clothing provides the humanoids with the potential for a personality.
Androids, which possess a human figure, are dressed with clothing to cover their otherwise “naked” body. The embarrassment felt in the presence of a realistic replication of a naked body, although a synthetic one, is rationalized by staff and students in practical terms: on the one hand, clothing helps to provide a more realistic representation of a human being and, on the other, it spares the effort of creating skin for a whole body, hiding away imperfections. The initial random choice of old clothing proved to have a negative impact on the students, who eventually chose to upgrade the image of the android with a cuter and more upbeat wardrobe. When dealing with a female android, immediately the issue of gender comes to mind. Although aware of the importance of gender, in general sexuality is little spoken of in robotics. As Prof. Ishiguro puts it, “we cannot talk about it without consequences.”
In conclusion, humanoid and android design aims at designing social robots that in the future can communicate and interact with humans in a natural way. Yet, social interaction with the robots begins in the lab with the practice of clothing, a way people can socially engage with the robots.