Toyota Motor Corp. will enter outer space in August, as a robot it co-developed rides to the International Space Station. Kirobo, a 13-inch-tall humanoid communication robot, will leave for the Space Station on August 4, returning to Earth in December 2014. During its 16-month stay there, it will engage in “discussions” with astronaut Koichi Wakata, marking the first time conversations have occurred between a robot and a human in space.
”Kirobo’s software is different from existing one-on-one question-and-answer systems,” Fuminori Kataoka, project general manager for Toyota’s Product Planning Group, stated in a video press release published by the automaker (see it below). “It was designed so that the person can feel the robot being sympathetic or kind as they speak to each other.”
Click on the image below to see Kirobo and other humanoid robots in action.
Toyota’s 13-inch-tall Kirobo communications robot will travel to the International Space Station in August. There, it will use voice recognition and natural language processing to engage in conversations with astronaut Koichi Wakata. (Source: Toyota)
Toyota engineers hope to gather data that would enable them to further understand human-robot communication. “Interactive conversation services are gradually evolving into systems that don’t just answer specific questions with specific answers, but into systems that can take and focus on specific elements of the conversation,” Kataoka said.
Toyota isn’t the first automaker to build humanoid robots. General Motors’ Robonaut 2 served in space in 2011. And Honda’s humanoid Asimo robot has mowed lawns, delivered cafeteria trays, and run up to four miles-per-hour during its 13 years.
Robotic experts have more recently focused on developing human characteristics, such as empathy and humor, in robots. At the Freescale Technology Forum (FTF) in 2011, CEO Heather Knight of Marilyn Monrobots, demonstrated a robot that told jokes and did imitations of Darth Vader and Buzz Lightyear. ”Humor is one of our most important human attributes,” Knight told a gathering at FTF. “If robots can learn humor, it can help them connect with people.”
It may seem far-fetched but I think it would make a great plot for a Sci-Fi movie. Imagine a 13-inch high robotic mix of Hannibal Lecter (minus the cannibalism, of course) and HAL wreaking havoc in space, hacking the Earth's internet, then taking over the NSA's equivalent of Skynet (shades of Terminator). But all is not lost - Earth's salvation is a group of engineers armed with the only computational tool left on the planet not under the control of the 13-inch menace - a slide rule. But who can teach them how to unlock its power? The quest begins to seek out the curmudgeonly retired Yoda-like engineer named...... You get the idea.
It is great that they have moved from the idea of simple conversations towards more humanly conversations by including emotions in it and removing the element of typical robotic conversation. And also it is nice to see astrounauts being acompanied by robots that would be sympathetic towards them, it will be good for them to have something to have fun with in such a lonely environment.
Yes, I think you've homed in on the other big part of the story, taimoortariq. Being on the ISS for months can be a pretty lonely task. I would imagine astronauts will be happy to have the company, even if it is the company of a robot.
I agree, taimoortariq. An astronaut/robot conversation aboard the ISS, with the appropriate emotional content, is an ideal test bed for this type of technology. Also astrounauts might be less "freaked out" by the humanoid form of the robot.
Charles, I do see some potential behind the robot for space travelers as an entertainment element and companion while being a million miles away from people. The vision of robots and humans co-existing is truly in its infancy stage but its going to take society to have an open mind to accept this concept. Sci-fi movies protraying robots dominating society will continued to be in the front matter of the majority of people thus resisting acceptance to these machines as being equal partners and companions. Baxter, Marilyn Monrobot, and other societal robots are the ambassadors to break down this wall of fear and resistance of man co-existing with intelligent machines. Great article and video Charles!
I agree mrdon, scifi movies are portraying a negative image of humanoids, the have instilled a sense of fear in the public. It is very important that this hostile feeling among the masses be removed through the creation and promotion of friendly robots, having friendly gestures with humanly emotions in them. Just like this toyota humanoid is contributing towards the promotion of a friendly image of humanoids.
Agreed, taimoortariq. Those fears need to be broken down. There's actually a well-known phenomenon called the "uncanny valley," which essentially describes the point at which a robot gives humans the creeps. Some engineers are trying to find ways to eleiminate that uncanny valley. (see link about uncanny valley below)
Five years ago, optical heart rate tracking seemed like an obvious successor to the popular chest straps used by many fitness buffs, but the technology has faced myriad engineering challenges on its way to market acceptance.
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