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Japan is testing robots as caregivers and companions. Could that work in the U.S.?

Toyota Motors’ communication robot Kirobo Mini is equipped with artificial intelligence and a built-in camera. The robot is capable of recognizing the face of the person speaking to him and responding in unscripted conversation or even starting a chat.
Toyota Motors’ communication robot Kirobo Mini is equipped with artificial intelligence and a built-in camera. The robot is capable of recognizing the face of the person speaking to him and responding in unscripted conversation or even starting a chat. AFP/Getty Images

A car company as a maker of robots? I suppose it makes sense, given the electronics now being stuffed into autos enroute to a driverless future. Consider Toyota, which developed a robot called Kirobo and had it launched to the International Space Station some three years ago. Just over a foot tall, Kirobo became pals with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, becoming something of a conversation partner and doubtless helping the entire crew lighten their long hours of work in space.

So successful was Kirobo at the task that Toyota has now announced Kirobo Mini, a diminutive version of the machine, that will go on sale next year in Japan. The robot made its first appearance last year at the Tokyo Motor Show, reinforcing the idea that transforming artificial intelligence can spawn new lines of technology no matter what a company’s background.

So are U.S. automakers going to follow suit? We can’t rule it out because Japanese auto giant Honda has already produced Asimo, which is a robot in humanoid form that boasts a fair amount of mobility in addition to the ability to talk. Other firms are in the mix: About a decade ago, Sony discontinued the sale of Aibo, a dog-shaped robot, but the company has hardly abandoned robots and has a new one in the works. Who will use all these robots, and why?

Surprisingly, the answer is that while early robots have a limited repertoire, people not only like them but tend to form emotional attachments to them. It’s a connection with a future, and it’s being tested in Japan, which is an ideal laboratory for the development of new robots because 40 percent of its population will be older than 65 by the year 2060. That means healthcare workers are a priority, and spending on eldercare will double over the next decade.

Can robots step in as caregivers where humans are scarce? They may have begun as little more than digital pets, but the thought is that they can develop increasing sophistication in areas like hospital care and in-home support for invalids and the elderly. Consider Robear, developed by a Japanese research institute called Riken. Robear is a robot in the form of a small polar bear that can assist patients in getting into and out of bed while projecting pet-like vibes.

The whole idea is to create a generation of robots that make emotional connections with their owners while assisting them in material ways. Which gets us back to Kirobo, a device that comes with its own cradle that fits into your car’s cup holder. You take your robot friend with you, you see, as Toyota experiments with how artificial intelligence can adapt to human behavior.

The company’s advertising shows the diminutive machine, which looks a bit like a baby duck with big eyes, saying appropriate things at the right point in a conversation. At this point, Kirobo still looks like a toy, but Toyota is clearly exploring human-robot interactions for a reason.

Emotional connectivity fits well with another Japanese robot. Paro is a robotic baby seal that was developed by the country’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, one that responds to petting and reacts to statements by its owner. Designed for those with disabling mental issues, Paro has been shown to have much the same effect as living pets with such people, spurring increased brain function, according to one recent study.

What we should keep in mind about these early robotic ventures is that they are testing a boundary between human and machine that we know little about. In Japan, the Shinto faith considers robots as spiritually significant as their biological creators. It remains to be seen how people in western cultures respond, but with U.S. healthcare costs skyrocketing, robotics are being studied for in-home care as well as assisted living situations. Expect numerous experiments in small robotics to emerge from the need to provide practical solutions.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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