Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will ascend to the International Space Station in November and find a friendly face from his home country waiting. Kirobo, the first talking robot in space, will recognize Wakata’s face and greet him by name.
If a companion robot that knows and speaks to you is unsettling, at least this particular bot was built to be small, cute, and harmless with Japanese design’s signature large eyes. It’s a unique cultural phenomenon to categorize a nation’s technology by design (think Honda’s ASIMO), and Japan is arguably the only country to have pursued robotics enough to have developed a unified style. (American robotics, if anything, is globally identified with the infamous Predator and Reaper drones, but drones aren’t true robots, requiring a three-man crew to operate.)
Appropriately, the robot awaiting astronaut Wakata is named Kirobo, combining the Japanese word kibou, for "hope," and robot. Kirobo is the latest in three decades of human-facing bots, in which Japan has trial-and-errored itself through mad experiments in the Uncanny Valley to home in on what comforts us. But beyond simple technical achievement, the Japanese have yearned to do what other national cultures have blanched at: Supplementing, and in some cases replacing, human-to-human interaction with robots.
Consider the robots that Japan plans to use as caregivers for the elderly. They were conceived as a solution for the country’s ever-declining birth rate, a trend which has left fewer Japanese to take care of the retiring Baby Boomer generation. Other nations see the end of life as the period most in need of human interaction, but the Japanese distinction between souls in people and things is blurred. From Shinto belief in the kami (roughly, "spiritual essence") inhabiting rocks, trees, and streams, to the nature spirits inhabiting Miyazaki films, Japanese culture is embedded with belief in spiritual animation of the seemingly mundane. So it is not an unnatural concept that one can find spiritual meaning in robot companionship.
Kirobo is not alone either: A paired robot, Mirata ("mirai" is Japanese for "future"), waits on Earth, relaying all of her partner’s conversations. While Kirobo can be controlled remotely, the robots’ conversational skill developers at Toyota, headed by project manager Fuminori Kataoka, wanted the bots to have voices of their own.
"I wanted to introduce Kirobo and Mirata the sense of 'Wa' (or Japanese spirit) in the process of communication. This sense of 'Wa' is to have compassion when communicating with one another, and to value the sensibility to listen to the other person," Kataoka said.
Such formalism is another key part of Japanese culture’s embrace of robotics: the strict etiquette of conversation and, more broadly, public interaction itself. The conflict between honne (inner desires) and tatemae (public facade) is a perpetual strain between inward thinking and outward behavior—an ever-present distance between people that evinces a privacy and acceptance that one person can never truly know another. And while Western cultures explore such uncertainty in art and philosophy (to solipsistic extremes), Japanese culture calcifies the distance in the ritualized addressing of superiors and inferiors, the etiquette around entering and exiting rooms, in beginning and ending dinner—established protocols which robots can be built to emulate.
Legendary Japanese roboticist and Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled the latest version of his uncannily lifelike robot body double at the Global Futures 2045 conference in New York last June. Like Kirobo, Ishiguro’s robot "Gemenoid" HI-4 can respond to questions: A female Gemenoid modeled clothes in a Takashimaya Osaka department store and answered customers’ questions, which proved so popular that the clothes the Gemenoid modeled sold out immediately, Ishiguro told the conference.
"It’s a question of where the soul is," Ishiguro states in reference to his latest self-bot that could take his place at conferences or in classrooms. Ishiguro is excited to deploy his robodoppelgänger to outright replace him in conferences and classrooms—a full-fledged endorsement in his belief that a robot needs to have a human presence (sonzaikan in Japanese). In a Japan Society Lecture last February, however, Ishiguro discussed a significant practical application of robots: Preserving the skills and personality of important people.
Lo, it has happened: Seiichiro Katsura of Keio University has created a robot imbued with the skills of 90-year-old master calligrapher Juho Sado, and the robot’s express purpose is to teach children the master’s art. Notably absent, however, is any sort of Ishigiro’s human presence: The robot is a series of clamps, poles, and a drawing arm with paintbrush. This isn’t the first endeavor to preserve Japanese culture using robots: In 2007, scientists at Tokyo University taught a ‘bot they’d named HRP-2 to perform the Aizu Bandaisan, a Japanese folk routine. Though HRP-2 is at least humanoid, its blocky form is far from the human presence Ishigiro espouses.
Ishigiro insists that the more work he does on robots, the more he learns about humanity—not just about ourselves, but how we relate to the intersection between the human and the robots we treat as partners. Two-hundred miles above Earth, little Kirobo waits and will, his designers hope, bring a little conversational warmth to an astronaut far from home.
Taylor Beck contributed reporting to this article.
[Image: Flickr user Eric Kilby]