Toyota launches ‘baby’ robot for companionship

Media captionCan Toyota’s robot fill a gap in owners’ lives?

A palm-sized robot that can hold conversations will go on sale in Japan next year, developer Toyota has announced.

Kirobo Mini, who was 10cm (4in) high, had been designed to provide companionship, the company said.

And it could tailor conversations to include comments about journeys based on data from its owner’s vehicle.

It also has childlike attributes, but a robotics expert told the BBC a robot could not be a substitute for a child.

“He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself,” Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini’s chief design engineer, told the Reuters news agency.

“This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.”

Prof Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn, from the school of computer science at the University of Hertfordshire, said the “cute” robot may appeal to young people.

“It reminded me of the Tamagotchi – the idea of having a cute little thing that is not necessarily giving you the impression that it is alive but has these lifelike attributes,” she told the BBC.

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“They are appealing to people’s nurturing instincts.”

However, Prof Dautenhahn, said it was “offensive” to believe it could be a child substitute for women without children, as some reportshave suggested.

Some of Toyota’s marketing material shows women cradling the robot, but the company does not not explicitly make this claim.

“It might make people feel good, but there is no human component here, robots cannot be substitutes for children,” said Prof Dautenhahn.

‘Casual conversation’

Toyota says Kirobo Mini can:

  • engage in “casual conversation”, using gestures, facial expressions and blinking
  • remember user preferences and previous events, such as likes, dislikes and outings
  • use data from connected devices such as those in the home or car to generate comments

It has a provisional price tag of 39,800 yen (£300), and there are no plans to sell it outside of Japan.

It is considerably cheaper than other companion robots – Aldebaran’s humanoid robot, Pepper, cost 198,000 yen at launch.

Kirobo Mini’s predecessor, a 34cm robot called Kirobo, was sent up to the International Space Station in 2013.

Its job was to accompany Japanese astronaut Kochi Wakata as part of a study about isolation.

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