Someone types a command into a laptop, and Actroid-DER jerks upright with a shudder and a wheeze. Compressed air flows beneath silicone skin, triggering actuators that raise her arms and lift the corners of her mouth into a demure smile. She seems to compose herself, her eyes panning the room where she stands fixed to a platform, tubes and wires running down through her ankles. She blinks, then turns her face toward me. I can’t help but meet her—its—mechanical gaze. “Are you surprised that I’m a robot?” she asks. “I look just like a human, don’t I?”
Her scripted observation has the unfortunate effect of calling my attention to the many ways she does not. Developed in Japan by the Kokoro Company, the Actroid-DER android can be rented to serve as a futuristic spokesmodel at corporate events, a role that admittedly does not require great depth of character. But in spite of the $250,000 spent on her development, she moves with a twitchy gracelessness, and the inelasticity of her features lends a slightly demented undertone to her lovely face. Then there is her habit of appearing to nod off momentarily between utterances, as if she were on something stronger than electricity.
While more advanced models of the Actroid make the rounds of technology exhibitions, this one has been shipped to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to acquire the semblance of a personality. Such at least is the hope of five optimistic graduate students in the university’s Entertainment Technology Center, who have been given one 15-week semester to render the fembot palpably more fem and less bot. They have begun by renaming her Yume—dream, in Japanese.