“Hello. Excuse me for remaining seated. It’s been nearly 100 years, hasn’t it?”
So said an android version of literary giant Natsume Soseki in a calm voice when it was unveiled to the media in Tokyo on Thursday.
The robot, dressed in a light brown tweed suit and leather shoes and sporting the writer’s trademark mustache, is the work of Nishogakusha University in Tokyo, which collaborated with robotics researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University.
The researchers hope the seated 130-cm figure, based on Soseki’s appearance at age 45, will not only revive the memory of the author who died on Dec. 9, 1916, but also ignite literary interest in him among young students.
This year marks the centennial of the death of the novelist, who studied Chinese literature at the private university in Tokyo in 1881.
“Soseki is known today as a literary giant, but his image has changed in the course of history,” Fusanosuke Natsume, Soseki’s grandson and a manga critic involved in the project, told a news conference at the university. Fusanosuke’s voice was used to artificially re-create his grandfather’s.
“I’m curious to know how the future image of Soseki will change through this android,” he said.
To make the android appear as real and lifelike as possible, the researchers scanned the novelist’s death mask to create a 3-D image of his face. The mask is owned by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which published “Kokoro” and other works of fiction that Soseki penned for the daily.
Ishiguro, who is famous for creating an android of himself, said the challenge was how to fill the gap between the image, which had sunken cheeks, and the face everyone is familiar with that appears on the old version of the ¥1,000 bill.
“People’s faces change daily, including ours. So our goal was to re-create Soseki as a whole being, not just through his face, but also through his way of talking and gestures.”
The robotic replica will give lectures and recite Soseki’s works in the classroom. The university also plans to research how students react to the android as part of its wider research into how robots can co-exist with humans, Nishogakusha University Dean Junko Sugahara said.
In a demonstration session, the “special professor” recited parts of his lesser known work “Ten Dreaming Nights,” released in 1908. It also “chatted” according to a pre-programmed script with a moderator on stage, speaking and moving as if alive.
Asked to laugh in front of the audience, he replied with a barely noticeable smile that “it’s hard to laugh without listening to a rakugo (comic storyteller’s) story.”