12 December 2016

INNOVATE - Kirobo Mini Robot a Step Forward in Interactive Technology

Kirobo Mini is an interactive robot being released by Toyota in Japan next year for a cost of just under $400 USD.

The robot is small enough, at around 10 cm, to carry in a purse or keep in a car’s cupholder, and is being described as a companion for its owners.

It speaks Japanese (and will presumably speak other languages if it rolls out in other countries), responds to facial expressions, and can engage in conversation.

It’s difficult to say which branch of interactive technology has taken a leap forward with the introduction of Toyota’s Kirobo Mini.

On the one hand, the little machine is like a lot like a Hatchimal, the interactive evolution of Gen Xers beloved Tamagotchi.

Like the Hatchimal, the toy that has taken over the Christmas buying market this year, the Kirobo Mini is an interactive companion that responds to input from the user.

Kirobo Mini is designed to provide companionship for Japan’s often lonely population of seniors and young singles.

The general manager in charge of the Kirobo Mini project, Fuminori Kataoka, told The Associated Press, “This is about the existence of something you can talk to. A stuffed animal might not answer back, but people do talk to it... But if it talked back, wouldn't that be better?”

The connection to interactive toy technology is clear.

But the Kirobo Mini could just as easily be seen as an evolution of the Internet of Things, because unlike Hatchimals, the Kirobo Mini is a connected device.

The communication capability happens via Bluetooth connection to a smartphone app and processing in the cloud.

This introduces both a clunky interface and significant security risks.  

The Kirobo Mini is a “communication partner,” and joins a growing market of robots filling service and companionship roles.

Last year, the interactive robot Pepper was released in Japan and in 2016 Pepper was introduced in Silicon Valley.

Pepper is used primarily in retail and hospitality venues, and can respond not only to the facial expressions and voices of customers, but also tracks their activity within the space in a way that previous technology has not been able.

These robots mark a convergence of technologies, both connected and interactive, and although this was an inevitable step forward, it also comes with some risks, especially regarding the security of the information that the robots are collecting.

Despite the risks, interactive robots like Kirobo Mini and Pepper are changing users’ relationships with machines.

Kirobo Mini is a significant investment by Toyota, part of a push towards AI and robotics.

If the robot is effective in fostering an emotional connection with its owners, this could significantly increase drivers’ trust in any self-driving and autonomous cars that Toyota releases.

By changing the relationship with robots and introducing an element of emotional connection and a feeling of reciprocity, Kirobo Mini has the potential to push the Internet of Things beyond being a network of connected devices, and into a network of relationships between devices and humans.

About Tiffany Sostar:
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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