There is something charming about car companies flexing muscle in seemingly unrelated businesses, like Peugeot making pepper mills or Volkswagen churning out sausages and ketchup. Toyota has been leveraging its considerable mechanical expertise to build robots since the 1970s, when it emerged as a pioneer in the field of industrial robotics. In 2000, the company expanded to personal robots, and has since built machines that can play walk, talk, play musical instruments, and offer degrees of assistance to the disabled.
Toyota's latest robot is an assistant of a different sort.
Called the Kirobo Mini, this petite android measures a mere four inches high in his standard sitting position. He's a "communication partner," says Toyota, designed to be a miniature personal companion. Aesthetically, he is halfway between Astro Boy and a Prius. The company plans to sell the robot through car dealerships for 39,800 yen (a bit more than £300), which seems steep only until you see just what a clever little dickens he is.
His gaze will follow the movement of his owner's head during the conversation, and his glowing eyes will "blink" to remind the human that she's talking to a sentient being and not, say, an electric toothbrush.
He is capable of engaging in some fairly elaborate and highly animated small talk (only in Japanese, for now), and uses a camera to recognise — through facial expressions, gestures and vocal tone — the emotional state of his, er, human companion. His gaze will follow the movement of his owner's head during the conversation, and his glowing eyes will "blink" to remind the human that she is talking to a sentient being and not, say, an electric toothbrush. Moreover, the device remembers its human companion's likes, dislikes and "shared travels," and will increasingly integrate that information into its conversation. ("We have been here before!")
Toyota's brief concept film for the robot walks a fine line between feel-good and creepy, portraying its electronic leprechaun happily interacting with friendless people of all ages. It also depicts a young woman who brings the device on a date and another who leans on him for job-interview advice. Says Toyota, Kirobo Mini "becomes a partner to carve out your future together with." Hm.
I think we're getting into a weird area here.
Now, Kirobo Mini is not some sort of labour-saver — he does not arrive as the world's long-awaited robotic dog-walker, and he will not mix a martini, no matter how often or sweetly you make the request. And alas, despite the emblem on his chest, Kirobo Mini cannot drive a car. (Let's be frank: Even if he was programmed for the task, his feet wouldn't reach the pedals). But Toyota will offer a Kirobo Mini-sized 'child seat' that fits in a car's cup holder (no word on whether this will allow the driver to use the carpool lane). And much like a child, Kirobo Mini will run hard for 2.5 hours before requiring a 3-hour nap to recharge.
Kirobo Mini links to a smartphone via a Bluetooth connection, and its dedicated app costs 300 yen (about £2) per month to use. (Nobody said raising communications partners would be cheap.) Although it is easy to dismiss this achingly adorable little 'bot as a mere toy — one that calls to mind the world's 1990s fetish for Tamagotchi 'virtual pets' — it isn't all that difficult to imagine the possibilities for such a portable, always-on digital helper. A partnership with Google, for instance, whose omniscient but charmless Home voice-assistant device debuted earlier this week, could imbue Toyota's animatronic garden gnome with Jarvis-like capability, allowing him to do much more than dispense platitudes and remind you that you like rice omelets.
Just don't ask him to mix a martini.
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