Japan swaps babies for androids

It is 4 inches tall, speaks in a high pitch voice, and wobbles like a toddler. Toyota’s new interactive robot is designed to alleviate loneliness at USD 300 apiece.

By Zofia Reych

As birth-rates in Japan continue to plummet, technology has the perfect solution for childless singles and couples. Those who yearn for a cute, little companion, but without the hassle of parenthood, are no longer confined to pets. Baby robot Kirobo Mini aims to satisfy their emotional needs and it can be switched off at any time.

From outer space to your home

In 2013, a small, experimental companion robot became Japan’s first humanoid astronaut. His name was Kirobo, derived from the Japanese word for hope (kibou) and English robotics.

Kirobo was sent to space to accompany Captain Koichi Wakata at the International Space Centre. The small talk between the human and the little robot was a breakthrough in the development of machines that will soon relieve astronauts of their daily tasks in space. Importantly, Kirobo’s answers were not pre-recorded messages, but statements intelligently produced in response to Wakata’s questions.

Robotics’ potential lies not only in automation and pragmatic work, and the Paro Seal is the best example of a machine designed purely to satisfy man’s emotional needs. This “therapeutic robot” is an electronic pet used to alleviate anxiety and loneliness in dementia patients. Fluffy and cute, Paro is a serious medical device that delivers results. It’s been in use in Japan and abroad for over a decade.

“It allows people to still feel a sense of achievement, a sense of identity. They become the carer instead of the cared for,” explains Claire Jepson, an occupational therapist from an NHS specialist assessment unit for dementia patients in the UK.

The Seal renders best results with patients who don’t realise it is not a live animal. But scientists realised that for young, healthy people suffering from loneliness, interacting with a robot can serve a similar purpose.

Earlier this month, Toyota announced Kirobo Mini, a smaller cousin of the first robotic astronaut. And, in the context of a highly technologised Japanese society, Kirobo Mini does not need to pretend it is anything but a cute robot. He runs on the the same type of AI that will soon control Toyota’s first self-drive cars.

“He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself,” says Fuminori Kataoka, chief designer behind the baby automaton. “This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.”

China keeps up

In 2013, China actually surpassed Japan in the deployment of industrial robots. When it comes to companion machines, it seems that the Chinese prefer their robots to perform particular, pragmatic tasks. Recent deployments include a police robot patrolling the Shenzhen airport, as well as customs officer bots working at the Guangdong Province airports.

Increasingly popular, “robot shops” sell robots ranging from affordable toys, to serious designs developed to wait on restaurant tables.

“We will see fewer gimmicks as consumers will look at the functionality and actual application of the robots. Robot waiters can cut down the cost of hiring human waiters,” explains Professor Hongen Liao, of Beijing’s Tsinghua University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Another popular robot specialisation is sex, but for now Chinese sexbots, such as Magic Beauty, are just high-tech dolls. Soon however, there might be much more.

“Just as porn drove the development of the internet, sex robots are likely to drive the development of domestic robots,” predicts Dr David Kreps, a senior lecturer at the Salford Business School.

Will you trust him?

Paro Seals inventor, Dr Takanori Shibata, believes that Japan’s relationship with robots is uniquely positive. According to Shibata, in the West robots are viewed with more fear, while AI creates suspicion. On the contrary, the hyper-modern Japanese society is more open to living alongside intelligent machines.

Frederic Caplan from the Sony Computer Science Laboratory argues that unlike Westerners, the Japanese do not seek to define themselves through differentiation between the natural and the artificial. Even in the shintou religion, the fake is welcome: a pretend party lures sun-goddess Amaterasu out of her hiding, and saves the world from eternal darkness.

Kirobo Mini is a pretend-human, but, unlike the West, Japan does not suffer from the “Frankenstein syndrome”: an artificial humanoid cannot be a threat.

Yet not all scientists agree that the Japanese are more attuned to interacting with robots. In fact, some studies suggest quite the opposite. High levels of exposure to robots through media and personal experience can lead to more concerns over AI’s impact on the society.

However, positive attitudes prevail. “Robots are a natural extension of technology such as cars or smartphones and people have evolved because of such technology. Robots allow humanity to advance,” says professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from Osaka University.

Sex with a robot

Although it is believed that low birth-rates in Japan are mostly related to an extreme work culture, many young people are reluctant to enter relationships for other reasons. While tradition still dictates that extramarital sex is bad, liberal currents complicate the landscape; disheartened by a minefield of social rules, more and more people refrain from dating altogether.

Childless and partnerless, thanks to robotics, young and lonely Japanese will not have to go without sex for long. “Sex robots seem to be a growing focus in the robotics industry,” says Dr Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow at De Montfort University, while others predict that by 2050 we will witness the first human-robot marriage.

For now, a virtual reality sex suit is the most realistic electric sex device available, but sex robots – or sexbots – are soon to arrive. Unsurprisingly, this level of human-robot intimacy already raises ethical questions. Producer of Pepper, another cutting-edge companion robot already on sale in Japan, decided that boundaries have to be clear. You “must not perform any sexual act” or engage in “other indecent behaviour” with Pepper the robot.

It is unclear if SoftBank, the company behind Pepper, shares the same concerns as Dr Richardson. “We have the real use of women and children in the real world (as sex objects) and this kind of paraphernalia reinforces that message,” she told The Mirror.

If the Japanese are ready to welcome robots into their everyday life, it might be mostly dictated by stark shortages in the workforce. Indeed, intelligent machines may soon alleviate labour shortages not only in Japan, but also in China, and other fast ageing societies. Unfortunately, baby-bots – and sexbots – are unlikely to have a positive impact on the root of the problem.