Toyota’s tiny talking robot is something you can talk to

TOKYO — The new robot from Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. can’t do much but chatter in a high-pitched voice.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Kirobo Mini, a compact sized humanoid communication robot, sits during a press unveiling in Tokyo. (AP PHOTO)
Toyota Motor Corp.’s Kirobo Mini, a compact sized humanoid communication robot, sits during a press unveiling in Tokyo. (AP PHOTO)

The 39,800-yen ($390), 10-centimeter (four-inch) -tall, doll-like Kirobo Mini — whose name comes from “kibo,” or “hope,” and “robot” — supposedly has the smarts of a five-year-old.

Fuminori Kataoka, general manager in charge of the project, says its value is emotional, going from home to car to the outdoors as a faithful companion, although the owner must do all the walking and driving.

Preorders start later this year. Shipments are set for next year. No overseas sales are planned so far. The company said it planned a gradual rollout, initially limited to Tokyo and Aichi prefecture in central Japan, near company headquarters, to get feedback from consumers.

Although it can’t do much but chatter in a high-pitched voice, the new robot from Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. would make for a “faithful companion.” (AP PHOTO)
Although it can’t do much but chatter in a high-pitched voice, the new robot from Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. would make for a “faithful companion.” (AP PHOTO)

It comes equipped with a camera, microphone and Bluetooth, and connects to a smartphone, which needs to be installed with a special software application. It turns its head toward a voice.

“Toyota has been making cars that have a lot of valuable uses. But this time we’re just pushing emotional value,” Kataoka said.

The robot is not equipped with face recognition technology, and so it cannot recognize different people. The idea is one Kiribo Mini per person, according to Toyota.

More people in Japan are living alone, including the elderly and young singles. And they need someone, or in this case something, to talk to, Kataoka said.

“This is not smart enough to be called artificial intelligence,” he said. “This is about the existence of something you can talk to. A stuffed animal might not answer back, but people do talk to it, like my daughter once did this. But if it talked back, wouldn’t that be better? And isn’t this better than talking to a box?”

Some may find depressing, if not disturbing, a vision of a society of lonely people turning to dialogue with machines. But proponents say that’s the reality, and that the technology can serve as a tool to help care for the sick or the elderly.

The idea of companion robots is already widely accepted in Japan. (AP)

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