The Toyota Motor Corp has unveiled a palm-sized robot, dubbed Kirobo Mini, designed as a both a synthetic baby in Japan (where plummeting birth rates have left many women childless), and a driving companion. “He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself,” said Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini’s chief design engineer. “This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.”
Toyota plans to sell Kirobo Mini, which blinks its eyes and speaks with a baby-like high-pitched voice, for 39,800 yen ($392) in Japan next year. It also comes with a “cradle” that doubles as its baby seat designed to fit in car cup holders.
Kirobo Mini can hold a conversation with drivers to keep them alert on long drives. Apparently it can maintain eye contact and gesticulate as it chats in “casual conversation” with a driver.
It’s a smaller version of Kirobo, the robot that Toyota joint-developed and sent into space in 2013 alongside Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to command the International Space Station.
Sounding like something from a Philip K Dick sci fi novel, Toyota announced: “As part of the Toyota Heart Project – our vision of a future where humans and artificial intelligence work together for a better world – we have created Kirobo Mini, a new, 10cm high communication companion. He can talk to you, gesture at you, and detect and respond to your emotions, but his mission as your new portable friend doesn’t end there.
“Imagine how driving would change if Kirobo Mini’s technology was integrated into Toyota vehicles: we could assimilate hours of data to better the everyday lives of drivers all over the world, informing future innovations and developing transport that’s in tune with the driver’s mood, suggesting places to visit, routes to travel and music to listen to.
“Kirobo Mini could help driving become a physically and emotionally transformative experience. After all, Kirobo’s name derives from the Japanese word for ‘hope’, and we believe he’s filled with exciting possibilities…”
Kirobo has been designed to be a good listener, attentively taking in what a person says in order to process the information and respond with a positive show of sympathy or kindness.