Japan’s Uncanny Quest to Humanize Robots

Photographer Luisa Whitton documents what it means to be human in a time when robots nearly resemble living, breathing people.

We’re one step closer to a robot takeover. At least, that’s one interpretation of “What About the Heart?” a new series by British photographer Luisa Whitton. In 17 photos, Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. These are the result of a growing group of scientists trying to make robots look like living, breathing people. Their efforts pose a question that’s becoming more relevant as Siri and her robot friends evolve: what does it mean to be human as technology progresses?


Whitton spent several months in Japan working with Hiroshi Ishiguro, a scientist who has constructed a robotic copy of himself. Ishiguro’s research focused on whether his robotic double could somehow possess his “Sonzai-Kan,” a Japanese term that translates to the “presence” or “spirit” of a person. It’s work that blurs the line between technology, philosophy, psychology, and art, using real-world studies to examine existential issues once reserved for speculation by the likes of Philip K. Dick or Sigmund Freud. And if this sounds like a sequel to Blade Runner, it gets weirder: after Ishiguro aged, he had plastic surgery so that his face still matched that of his younger, mechanical doppelganger.

So far, it doesn’t look like there’s much Sonzai-Kan happening in these robots’ chilling faces. Despite the meticulously placed peach fuzz, freckles, eye bags, and other details, there’s that feeling of deadness behind the camera-equipped eyes that will send you right into the uncanny valley.

The project’s title derives from a discussion with Ishiguro about what it means to be human. “The definition of human will be more complicated,” Ishiguro said.

Whitton replied that, in this day and age, we use artificial organs more often and replace pieces of our bodies with machines. “What about the heart?” she asked.

To which the literal-minded scientist replied, “That is the easiest part; artificial hearts are very popular now. The liver is more difficult.”

Through Ishiguro, Whitton got in touch with a number of other scientists working on androids. “In the photographs, I am trying to subvert the traditional formula of portraiture and allure the audience into a debate on the boundaries that determine the dichotomy of the human/not human,” she writes in her artist statement. “The photographs become documents of objects that sit between scientific tool and horrid simulacrum.”


Horrid indeed–could that android lady in the business suit someday lord over you as your next evil boss?

[via Feature Shoot]

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.