Is Toyota’s new toy robot a loneliness killer?

5 Oct 2016

Toyota has released a tiny toy robot to fill a number of perceived voids in Japan, with a growing number of both childless women and old people the target market for the Kirobo Mini “companion”.

Kirobo Mini does look cute, though engaging with a tiny robot rather than interacting with humans seems an odd stage in human evolution.

Kirobo Mini

Future Human

That hasn’t stopped Toyota, with its non-automotive department’s latest release part of a company-wide plan to build “irreplaceable companions”, which it claims its cars are becoming, too.

Fitting in the palm of the user’s hand, the company claims Kirobo Mini is very well adept at responding to its owner’s commands and moods.

This is thanks to a camera supported with facial recognition software, allowing Kirobo Mini detect their emotions, so that it can “accordingly adjust its manner of speaking and moving”.

Kirobo Mini

Toyota calls it “a cuddly companion always on hand for heart-touching communication”, with Kirobo Mini syncing up to software in the car or home to increase its level of input.

“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.”

The functionality of the Kirobo Mini is limited, with the 10cm-high robot moving its head and arms to address its user. It comes with a “cradle” that acts as its baby seat, fitting in cup holders in cars.

According to Toyota, it can:

  • Engage in casual conversation, backed by gestures and the ability to respond to user emotions

“Kirobo Mini converses while understanding what is being said to it, as well as interprets the facial expressions of the speaker. It adjusts its gestures and tone of voice to match the conversation, and, moreover, makes communication more meaningful by blinking and looking at the person speaking.”

  • Grow and provide tailored companionship by remembering user preferences and past events

“Kirobo Mini remembers user likes and dislikes and shared travels. It is able to gradually adjust its points of conversation to make them more suitable for the user.”

  • Enhance its conversational ability using information from the vehicle and home

“Based on information about the vehicle or home obtained through connected services, Kirobo Mini can provide more caring comments, such as: ‘That was a long drive. Good job.’ or ‘Welcome home! A warm bath is waiting.’”

Kirobo Mini

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic