Development In-Charge Fuminori Kataoka talks about the potential of the Kirobo Mini

2015 Tokyo Motor Show: Kirobo Mini, the robot that can communicate, will likely be linked to automatic driving technology

The Kirobo Mini, which is related to the robot astronaut Kirobo, is a robot that can display a variety of facial expressions and gestures, and plots communication while carrying a conversation with a human being. The motors that are loaded into the Kirobo Mini are limited to four; however, despite the restriction of its movements, it can nod and shake its head; moreover, it also displays the movement of waving its arms. In addition, the LED lights that are embedded in the eyes can produce a variety of facial expressions like smiling, frowning, and the like.

The single camera placed between the eyes and the three microphones installed within that area function as the sensor. The three microphones can recognize the direction of the sound; the fact that it can follow the user’s facial expression accurately from there is also a vital point. Its size is approximately 10cm while in the sitting position, and it weighs about 200g. It is also possible to carry it inside an exclusive pouch, and it can be placed in the car’s drink holder during driving.

Development In-charge Fuminori Kataoka of Toyota Motor Corporation’s Product Planning Division Product Planning Office said, “We envision a situation where it will always be nearby and it will grow while communicating with the user.”
“You will somehow feel lonely the moment you part with your beloved car which you have used for many years. You will develop such a bond while doing things together. The Kirobo Mini is a robot that can share the sentiments of the user.” (Kataoka)

The Kirobo Mini is programmed with a function to talk spontaneously, and it can share memories and the like while having a casual conversation with the user. For example, it could also interject a meaningful reponse like “the same thing did indeed happen a while ago” if you mutter “the same thing happened a while ago.” A lot of existing communication robots applies the the pattern of replying to the conversation; however, Kirobo Mini also invalidates that kind of conventional wisdom.

Concerning this, Kataoka said, “There are a great number of people in the world who think that it’s enough just to listen to the story rather than to talk incessantly about it. For that reason, something like an interjection or a parroting of words becomes necessary. That’s why we enabled its head to move to the front as well as sideways.” At the very least, they had an eye on creating a robot that sympathizes with the user’s feelings as a partner.

The background of this feature is connected with cloud computing through smartphones. This implements a spontaneous communication with the user. According to Kataoka, “It does not assume a specific voice recognition engine as it adopts whatever is the best thing;” however, it has an identical voice recognition system as smartphones and it became practical for the first time due to the presence of a highly efficient engine in the cloud. In that sense, it is good to think that this voice recognition system has an exceedingly important position.

It is worthy to note that the smartphone that is connected with the Kirobo Mini also fulfills a security function. The Kirobo Mini and the user has a one-on-one connection and it gives recognition only when there is a smartphone connection through Bluetooth. Even if there is a Kirobo Mini, it will only make secure movements in a situation where you temporarily do not have a smartphone. The user’s information will be stored in the cloud through the Kirobo Mini and the user’s privacy will be protected by means of this.

So, will Toyota be selling the Kirobo Mini? In response to this question, Kataoka unfortunately stated that, “There is no plan to sell it at this point in time. We are studying the users’ reaction to it.” Be that as it may, the domestic automotive industry is now facing the big challenge of dwindling demands. The existing condition is like this: aging is connected to the decrease in the number of drivers, and the younger generation’s level of interest in cars is low.

Kataoka is also cognizant of the status quo as he said, “Even if people can no longer drive cars, I would still want them to have that connection with Toyota. Even if people don’t have interest in cars, it’s enough for me if they get to know the fun of going out in a car through the Kirobo Mini.”

At that very moment of the motor show, we witnessed a lively activity which highlighted the practical use of automatic driving. The important thing here is the interface of the car and the driver; there was a TV program before called Knight Rider and playing an active role in that program was a car that was outfitted with artificial intelligence. Even in the world of automatic driving referred to as ITS (Intelligent Transport System), the technology that was developed with the so-called Kirobo Mini, which reads the driver’s mentality and facial expressions, will definitely become useful in the future.

(Translated by: Michael Sabaldan)