Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

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Rejecting Robot Caregivers

Japan has a problem.  It has a rapidly aging population of senior citizens and not enough younger people to care for them (or for that matter to contribute to the social welfare programs that support them, but that’s another story).

Ri-Man

Japan had hoped that robots would be the answer.  They envisioned robots that would care for the elderly and staff nursing homes and hospitals.  They have developed robots like Ri-Man, which can lift and carry hobbled senior citizens, and robots to serve as guides in hospitals.  Manufacturers have sunk millions of dollars into efforts to develop such robots.  Now they have concluded that robots are too expensive and impractical — and, even more important, are unwanted by patients and unwelcome, even in robot-friendly Japan.  As one person plaintively said:  “We want humans caring for us, not machines.”

No one should be surprised by this reaction.  It is not just because Ri-Man and the other caregiving robots look like full-scale toys or embarrassing caricatures of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still.  Instead, the breathless and triumphal tone of the video introducing Ri-Man, below, demonstrates the disconnect between the views of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing the robots and the seniors who are supposed to be buying them.  Elder care isn’t about technological advances or new frontiers in the science of robotics.  Instead, it is about helping human beings who are failing and who seek companionship and comfort as they decline.  Having to rely only on robots for help would be sterile and depressing. 

The elderly want to know that there is some person who cares enough about them to help them and spend time with them.  Can anyone blame them for concluding that metal and plastic robots are no substitute for a meaningful human connection?

Weird Robots And The Japanese Soul

What is it with the Japanese and robots, anyway?  They not only seem to be obsessed by them, they act on their obsessions in very weird ways.

Consider the Youtube clip below.  It shows a “female” Japanese robot known as HRP-4C, pictured at left, singing an annoying song as several young Japanese women frolic around her doing dances from the ’60s.  The robot herself looks like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz from the waist down, like a high-end blow-up doll from the neck up, is wearing what appears to be a yellow shower curtain, and has enormous “man hands” a la Seinfeld.  The robot looks like she could palm a medicine ball or crush an elephant’s skull with those mitts!  To top it off, the robot has a whiny voice and is about as fluid in her dance moves as the robot from Lost in SpaceDanger, Will Robinson!

Somewhere, in some dark, kinky corner of the Japanese soul, there may be an explanation for why a Japanese company would apparently spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a half-Tin Man, half-humanoid robot with grossly oversized hands and then program it to sing a crappy pop song involving choreography that is a few cuts below Glee — and for that matter an explanation for why a Japanese audience would sit and watch the resulting production.  Let’s just hope we never actually figure out what that explanation is.

Japanese Robot Creepiness

The Japanese seem to be leading the world in robotics, and in particular in attempts to develop an android — that is, a robot that possesses human features.

One of the latest ventures in that regard is the Telenoid R1, created by a professor at Osaka University.  Oddly, it is marketed as a kind of telecommunications tool.  The concept is that people will respond to the eye and head movements of the android and communicate more effectively and naturally than they would by staring at a teleconference screen of a distant conference room full of people.  It’s hard to believe that anyone would really relate to a bald, legless, armless, herky-jerky machine that looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but that is the professor’s hope.  (In fact, he is developing an even more bizarre hand-held device that looks like a stress-relieving squeeze toy.)  I found a video of the Telenoid R1 on YouTube, and it is pretty creepy to watch.  Wouldn’t you be embarrassed to find yourself talking earnestly to this thing?

We’re clearly moving closer and closer to android technology, but one of the big hurdles for me will be the sheer alien strangeness of a human-looking machine.  Even if the device was an animated as Max Headroom, how could you get beyond the understanding that you are talking to a bunch of nuts and bolts?