Sunday, August 25, 2013

Japan's First Robot Astronaut Claims the Future is Now

Space. The final frontier. For humans as well as robots. Japan's humanoid robot known as Kirobo is the first talking robot astronaut and just recently began his journey into the great beyond. Representing the hope of a nation, the fate of the future rests on this 13 inch robot's little shoulders. Why is Kirobo being sent into space? Will he succeed in his mission? We can only hope.


Derived from the Japanese words for "hope" and "robot", Kirobo was launched into space by (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) along with literally tons of other supplies and machinery just last week. Kirobo was designed as a companion for International Space Station astronaut Koichi Wakata. Kirobo will also help in relaying information from Koichi to another robot on Earth.

The biggest challenge in making this robot was designing it so it could function in zero gravity. The robot talks, and can also recognize different faces and voices. It's part of a program that aims to provide companionship for the elderly and/or lonely. For anyone who's seen (video clip further below), this is a pretty cool step in the direction of a future rife with sci-fi excitement.

Kirobo should spend about 18 months on the space station under the care of Koichi. I'm sure the other astronauts will get to play with him too, depending on how selfish Koichi is feeling. Too bad for them Kirobo only speaks Japanese.

The robot is a product of a collaboration between Dentsu, The University of Tokyo, Robo Garage, and Toyota. The overall goal of their is to "help solve the problems brought about by a society that has become more individualized and less communicative. Nowadays, more and more people are living alone." They hope a conversational robot such as Kirobo would help these people feel less lonely.


Kirobo is the first of many robots that could improve the health and wellbeing of many people just by being there to talk and interact with. When humans are isolated, psychological and cognitive damage can occur.

Writing in , Hara Estroff Marano noted that "unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory." This is especially important for those living in Japan, because, as we all know, .

Being in space can get pretty lonely at times, and this is where Kirobo comes in. At least the people on the space station have their crew, but not all of them speak the same language as it is an international space station. Plus, this is just kind of a test to see how a robot like Kirobo would function if somewhere down the road we start sending lone astronauts on trips to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. Those people would get pretty lonely, and having a little buddy like Kirobo around would make things a little bit more bearable. Anyone seen the movie ?

Also, the technology developed and refined here might one day improve your car (if it's a Toyota, that is). Toyota is responsible for the voice recognition tech in Kirobo, so what they learn from this experiment will be applied in future car models with voice activated controls.

Kirobo arrives at the station this month, but won't actually get set up and start speaking until later in the month or early September. Apparently Koichi isn't even getting to the space station until November, but he's going to be the first Japanese Commander of the International Space Station, so that's pretty cool.

Koichi will start getting into serious tests and experiments with Kirobo come December. Why they sent Kirobo separate from Koichi and spread so far apart, I'm not quite sure.


If you've been keeping up with Japanese tech and/or Tofugu, you'll know that Japan has been at the forefront of humanoid robot technology. Everything from to has already been done (all of which ). Kirobo is one of many steps towards getting robot companions to those that need them.

I think this is one of the coolest, but also scariest, directions robot tech can head in. How many movies and TV shows have we seen where robot companions go berserk, become self-aware, or cause some sort of harm to their fleshy overlords? I mean, , but actual physical robots like Kirobo pose a much larger potential threat.

Even more than the robots acting on their own, what about hackers and viruses for something to worry about? What if someone found a way to hack into your robot companion and used an Xbox controller to make the robot flush your cat down the toilet and rack up tons of expenses on pay-per-view? The horror! But no, seriously, how terrible would it be to get strangled in your sleep by your robot "friend"? That would be just dreadful.

On the other hand, how awesome would it be to have a fully capable companion robot? It would be super awesome. Think of how much more productive (or lazy) you could be. The robot could cook and clean for you, freeing up lots of time for you to do whatever.

And while these kinds of robots could help extreme introverts and the elderly, people who don't get enough social interaction for whatever reason - these robots might also encourage some to not seek social interaction from real people. Why go out into the real work when you have a customizable robot that can do and be whatever you want it to? These are all things to consider as we head down this road.


But anyway, let's get back to Kirobo and space. I think it's a pretty cool idea. Right now it might seem like kind of like a novelty, and not really all that serious. But everything has to start somewhere, and Kirobo is already getting plenty of publicity since the space station he is going to is an international one, and lots of people care about space and stuff.

Will Kirobo be the catalyst that sparks the world into developing more robot companions like him? Perhaps. Will it happen anytime soon? Hopefully.

So tell me, would you want a companion robot like Kirobo or any other sort of robot like you've seen in fiction? Why or why wouldn't you want one? Share your thoughts about the future and let us know in the comments!

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