Toyota’s “Kirobo Mini” robots will start selling in Japan next year

Toyota Motor announced today that compact robot designed as a communication assistant “Kirobo Mini”, will go on sale across Japan in 2017.

Toyota showcased its mini robot at Asia’s largest electronics fair, the IT and Electronics Comprehensive Exhibition (CEATEC), which is being held in Tokyo this week. It’s presented as a friend to a lonely people. Japan faces problems of an ageing demographic. In next 45 years over 40 % of population will be over 65 years old. Japan society is also struggling with the problems of social isolation, most notably the phenomenon of “hikikomori” where people, often teens and young adults, refuse to leave the house or engage socially, instead opting to play video games or remain in their rooms.

Toyota has been making cars that have a lot of valuable uses, said Fuminori Kataoka, general manager in charge of the project. He added that this time world’s biggest automaker is just pushing emotional value. “This is not smart enough to be called artificial intelligence,” he said. “This is about the existence of something you can talk to. He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself.” This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection. “A stuffed animal might not answer back, but people do talk to it. If it talked back, wouldn’t that be better? And isn’t this better than talking to a box?” asked Kataoka.

“We want to address growing issues in society where people have no one to talk to,” said Moritaka Yoshida, a senior managing officer at Toyota.

Price in Japan, 39,800 yen ($400). No plans for worldwide sails.

The idea of companion robots is already widely accepted in Japan. There are currently no plans to sell it outside the country. Last year, Japanese technology and telecom company Softbank Corp launched its £1,500 Pepper humanoid. The first batch of 1,000 sold out immediately, and it has sold 10,000 in Japan so far.

Toyota hopes that the Kirobo Mini will have big success. Robot responds when it is spoken to, speaks with a baby voice and its small enough to be taken everywhere with its owner. Gadget is equipped with a camera, microphone and Bluetooth, and connects to a smartphone, which needs to be installed with a special software application. Voice recognition means it will turn its head when it is spoken to.

Companion robots are being developed in the United States too, with robotics experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about to launch Jibo, a robot which resembles a swivelling lamp. Artificial intelligence is increasingly part of the car production industry, with the growth of self-parking and ultimately self-driving vehicles.



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