Japanese Scientists Bring Us Closer to World of Ghost in the Shell
posted on by Eric Stimson
25 years ago, Masamune Shirow's science-fiction manga Ghost in the Shell wowed readers with its advanced technology. Its various animated incarnations have inspired and intrigued viewers the world over. This month, NTT Docomo Ventures, a venture capital fund, is launching a project to help recreate some of the signature technology from Ghost in the Shell like cyborgs, electric brains and thermoptic camouflage: the Ghost in the Shell Realize Project.
At a panel held on November 12 at Roppongi Garden Gallery in Tokyo, scientists specializing in these technologies convened to formally launch the initiative and discuss how close some of their research is to achieving Ghost in the Shell technology levels. Nobuyuki Akimoto, vice president-director of NTT Docomo Ventures, spoke with Masahiko Inami, a media design professor at Keio University; Naotaka Fujii, a team leader at RIKEN's Brain Science General Research Center and representative director at Hacosco, a virtual reality systems developer; Shuuji Kajita, an intelligent systems researcher and head of the Humanoid Research Group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology; and Satoshi Endou, director-chairman of Kadokawa Ascii Research Laboratories.
Professor Inami has been conducting research into "optic camouflage," the technology that allows the characters of Ghost in the Shell to blend in with their backgrounds. His inventions allow images to be reflected onto clothes, making the wearer seemingly blend in with their background, and into cars, letting the drivers see what's behind them.
Fujii discussed his research in brain science and presented a video of the head-mounted display his team has developed. This "substitutional reality system" plays pre-recorded video along with displaying reality, thereby confusing the viewer's perceptions of reality. Fujii speculates that this might be the first step towards the memory alteration used in Ghost in the Shell.
Kajita is researching humanoid robots and compared a robot from 2003 with a more humanoid robot built in 2009 with much more realistic and nuanced motions, although he admitted it's still a far cry from Ghost in the Shell's Motoko Kusanagi.
Fujii also opined that the micromachines of Ghost in the Shell that connect brains to computer networks may be possible ("technologically, there's nothing that can't be done"), but the research is still in its early stages, and finding the financial backing for the project would be difficult. Computerizing brains will also be hard due to the sheer amount of noise in brainwaves and the difficulty in finding subjects willing to attach electrodes to their brains for non-medical research. Discussion therefore turned towards the possibility of wearable devices and non-invasive technology like Google Glass, a computerized pair of eyeglasses, or hitoe, a nanofiber patch developed by NTT Docomo that monitors heart rates.
The panel also debated the feasibility of developing cyborgs, with similar optimism tempered with doubt. Kajita pointed out that while humans have around 600 muscles, the humanoid robot in the video only has 44. Beyond the difficulty of merely multiplying muscles, scientists will also have to figure out how to power the cyborgs. While Kajita's robot lasts for an hour at most, "looking into the future, battery life will gradually increase; I think humanoid battery life will be seven or eight hours by 2025. Going even further forward, to 2049 or 2050, using fuel cells, it could reach three days without refueling." Panelists also puzzled over details like the connection between the brain and muscle movement and what kind of network infrastructure regulates the cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell.
A replica of Ghost in the Shell Arise's Logicoma symbolizes the project's ambitions
At the end of the discussion, Inami quoted a science-fiction director as saying that you'll get a good work if you add 5% fiction to 95% reality. He framed the Ghost in the Shell Realize Project's work as bringing that remaining 5% to reality.
Here is the video of the panel for those able to follow technical discussions in Japanese. Video of Inami's optic camouflage can be watched at 4:42, video of Fujii's substitutional reality starts at 6:44, and video of Kajita's robots plays at 9:20.