I recently wrote a blog on Atlas, DARPA’s robot that has the potential to assist and rescue people in the event disaster strikes. Many comments were made regarding the over-the-top Terminator appearance of Atlas. I think that if it came to rescue me, I’d be equally afraid of it as of the disaster that brought it to me. In comparison, just look at the size and stature of Kirobo, a new style of robot-human interface created in Japan. The Kibo robot’s mission is to help solve the problems of a society that is more individualized and less communicative than some.
Just days ago, the 13.4 inch robot lifted off into space on an unmanned Kounotori 4 Transfer Vehicle (HTV4) bound for the International Space Station. Created at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology as part of the University’s Kibo Robot Project, the project team includes the University of Tokyo, Robo Garaja, Toyota, and Dentsu, with project cooperation by Jaxa.
The robot isn’t just a cute pet. It uses voice-recognition technology, facial recognition, and natural-language processing to talk with astronauts in space and scientists in the flight-control room on Earth. The mini-robot will converse with Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut on the space station, and also transmit communications from Earth to the astronaut. But there’s an equally important goal for little Kirobo -- to see if it can be an emotional anchor for those who are isolated.
Many children dreamed of becoming astronauts, including me. I knew, however, after reading about astronaut training, the bit of a klutz that I am would never pass muster. Amazingly, Kirobo trained as well to make sure it would withstand the rigors of space. Tests included thermal analysis, electromagnetic compatibility, and what interference background noise might cause to its voice-recognition abilities.
The Japanese have long been developing robotic assistance, especially for the elderly. A rapidly aging population (growing from 12 percent in 1990 to an estimated 33 percent in 2025) combined with a rapid decline in fertility, has created the fear that the elderly will have no one who is sufficiently trained to take care of them in their later years.
Enter caring but durable robots that could reduce the workload on nurses and enrich the lives of the elderly. The government is subsidizing development costs for assistive robots that will perform varied duties, such as helping the infirm walk and monitoring and tracking the whereabouts of dementia patients, as well as a robot-like suit that can lift patients off of beds.
I’m hoping that Kirobo -- a name that means hope, in combination with robot -- does well in its space mission. It’s a fascinating concept. While it doesn’t have an immediate application on a factory floor, it really opens up a range of possibilities for communication, not just with isolated people, but potentially within a hazardous environment.
What strikes me is the bruiser-like presence of an Atlas compared with the diminutive, gentle-looking Kirobo. While I understand that they have different purposes, the in-your-face scary built-in-America version is just so predictable.
Once the price comes down, if Kirobo can hold its own with Murphy, my German shorthaired pointer/lab mix, I want one.