Photo/IllutrationFusanosuke Natsume, left, a manga columnist and the grandson of Natsume Soseki, attends a news conference in Tokyo on June 7 with Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor of robotics at Osaka University, right. (Takayuki Kakuno)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Renowned novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is set to return 100 years after his death--as an interactive robot.

“My father and I and my grandfather Soseki were not the most friendly people, so we’d all be grouchy toward those whom we didn’t like,” said manga columnist Fusanosuke Natsume, the 65-year-old grandson of the famed writer. “But people can see that we’re all kindhearted and have a sense of humor once we open our arms. Personally, I want to see the android smiling.”

Commissioned to mark the 140th anniversary of Nishogakusha--an educational institution Soseki once attended--the project will produce an android of Soseki through the collaboration of Fusanosuke and Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor of robotics at Osaka University.

The robot will depict Soseki during the last years of his life, who is recognized throughout Japan from photos in textbooks and the former design of the 1,000 yen ($9.50) note. The robot will be fashioned in a seated position and measure 130 centimeters in height.

The team plans to complete the robot by Dec. 9, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s death.

“As the project will combine the various images of Soseki together, it could serve as a new research method of literature,” Ishiguro said.

Ishiguro is a highly regarded expert on androids and led a project in 2012 that produced a robot version of rakugo master Katsura Beicho.

“We will be able to promote Japan to the world by combining the nation’s state-of-the-art technology with Japanese literature,” he said. “It will also be a big challenge for us to tackle, as we will be attempting to re-create and share the existence of someone who has passed away, along with his literary works.”

Fusanosuke added, “What we think of Soseki today will play a key role in the project.”

The biggest hurdle is that photos are the only available source of the novelist’s appearance. There are no known footage or recordings of him, and with almost the passing of a century since the writer’s death, anyone who personally knew him is presumed long deceased.

To accurately re-create his face, the team turned to Soseki's death mask, which is preserved as part of The Asahi Shimbun Co. collection.

The mask was scanned with a 3-D scanner at K’s Design Lab in Tokyo on June 6, where streaks of blue light-emitting diodes (LED) appeared on the surface of the 100-year-old artifact. The procedure allowed the camera to read the form created by the blue lines and send the information to a computer, which processed it into 3-D data.

About 300 patterns of the mask placed on a turntable were captured with the camera that day. After an hour and a half of scanning and processing, the writer’s face was reproduced on the computer screen.

“The data will be of use to accurately re-create Soseki’s face,” said Shinya Kishimoto, a technical manager at K’s Design Lab.

The data will help produce the face of the android using silicone with the help of the various photos that show different angles of Soseki’s face. A total of 44 pneumatic actuators will be installed in the robot to facilitate realistic movements.

The robot will also have the capability to have simple conversations with people. The voice of the Soseki robot will be provided by his grandson.

The novelist died when Fusanosuke’s father, Junichi, was 9 years old. But as his father and grandfather are said to have had similar body shapes and Fusanosuke was apparently often mistaken for Junichi on the phone, there is a good chance that Fusanosuke shares a strong resemblance to Soseki.

“It’ll be no fun if the android shows us the typical image of Soseki, being all serious or kind toward his disciples,” Fusanosuke said. “It would be great if we could see a side of him being good at telling stories and making people laugh.”

Nishogakusha plans to first introduce the robot in lectures at its university and attached senior and junior high schools to get the students interested in Soseki and his works. The institution also anticipates dispatching the robot to outside institutions in the near future.

The institution will foot the bill for the cost of the project, but donations will also be accepted starting this fall through the crowdfunding website A-port run by The Asahi Shimbun.

Ishiguro believes the project will serve as a form of digital archiving.

“Androids are the perfect kind of media to portray a person’s presence,” he said.

(This article was written by Kazuki Yoshikawa and Keisuke Yamazaki.)