In 2015, Toyota announced that it would be investing about $1 billion over the next five years to expand its R&D capabilities in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence rapidly. The Kirobo Mini robot seems like Toyota’s stepping stone towards much more capable robots.
What was the inspiration?
The Kirobo Mini is based largely on the original Kirobo space robot which was the first robot to visit the International Space Station with Commander Koichi Wakata of JAXA (Japan’s national aerospace agency). The Kirobo was a joint project between various institutions and corporations. The University of Tokyo and RoboGarage worked on the hardware, Toyota provided speech recognition, Dentsu managed the project and created the conversation content. It was built to work in a zero-gravity environment, and its purpose was to test how humans and robots could work together on space missions.
The Kirobo Mini is a smaller version of the Kirobo. They share the same doe-eyes and onboard gadgets like cameras, sensors, mics, and speakers.
What is the use of the Kirobo Mini robot?
Apart from being Toyota’s first commercial foray into Robotics and AI, the Kirobo Mini is designed, first and foremost, to be a companion. It can understand facial emotions, remember its user’s preferences and use this data to carry out meaningful conversations. Additionally, the Robot of Hope will also keep a record of the journeys undertaken with the car. Thereby giving it the ability to respond with comments like “We were here last week too” and “That was a long drive, well done!”
Moreover, it incorporates a level of ‘childlike innocence,’ as Toyota likes to call it. This ‘innocence’ is achieved by adding physical movements to its speech. Driving can be a lonely affair, hours on the highway with just the landscape and music to keep you company. The Kirobo Mini is designed to mitigate that loneliness and turn it into a richer driving experience. Think of it as Amazon’s Alexa, only for your car and way cuter.
From a cultural perspective, Japan has been struggling with an aging population and lower birth rates for a while now. The Kirobo Mini is the realization of Toyota’s previously mentioned plans to invest in robotic applications that could be capable of helping aging populations domestically while simultaneously providing an experience of human interaction.
How does it work?
The Kirobo Mini works in conjunction with your smartphone and Toyota’s cloud service. The robot records the user’s voice, relays it to the paired smartphone. An app on the smartphone will then upload this to Toyota’s cloud service where it will undergo speech recognition. An appropriate response is generated and passed on to the robot via the smartphone. It can chat for up to 2.5 hours on batteries. It’s being released only in Japan at the moment and costs 39,800 yen ($392).