The folks at Toyota recently released a new robot, but before you turn away, know this: this robot isn't like others you've seen. The Japanese automaker's new robot aims to fill a different void — providing companionship and connection to those who need it.
The Kirobo Mini (kirobo is a combination of the Japanese words for hope and robot) is a doe-eyed robot that can fit in the palm of your hand. The little robot includes a camera, microphone and Bluetooth connection, and it uses these features to recognize facial expressions and participate in unscripted conversations. You can see it in action in this short video:
In Japan, where birth rates are plummeting and the population is aging, Toyota is hoping the Kirobo Mini will make a connection with anyone who is feeling lonely.
"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."
Kirobo Mini also emulates a child by blinking its large eyes and speaking in a high-pitched, baby-like voice. It even comes with a "cradle" that looks like a baby bunting and doubles as a car seat by fitting into cup holders.
The Kirobo Mini will go on sale at Toyota dealerships in Japan next year for 39,800 yen (about $392 in U.S. dollars). Its designers see the robot as a bridge toward helping people become more accustomed to accepting robots in their daily lives.
Japan's aging workforce and reluctance to allow immigrant employees add up to a diminished number of available workers to fill job vacancies. Last year, Japan opened its first robot-staffed hotel and plans are underway to integrate robots into stores and banks across the country. It's even likely that robots like the Kirobo Mini will connect (some day) with self-driving car technology.
But for now, the Kirobo Mini has but one task — to chat, cuddle and provide companionship — just like any other member of the family.