Are These Baby-Like Robots In Japan A Response To The Country's Population Shrinkage?

In October, Toyota announced the launch of the Kirobo Mini, a small personal robot that will be available to buyers in Japan next year. The Japanese robot mimics the behavior of a baby or small child, creating a sense of defenselessness meant to appeal to humans’ emotions. Although the Kirobo Mini seems to have some cool functionality, there remains a larger question: What is this infantile robot for? Some have speculated that these companion robots may be intended as the answer to Japan’s shrinking population.

The Kirobo Mini is a 4-inch high robotic doll whose name comes from a combo of the Japanese word for “hope” (“kibo”) and “robot,” according to the Associated Press. It has a built-in camera and microphone and can connect to a cell phone via Bluetooth. When it is shipped out to buyers in 2017, the Kirobo Mini will go for 39,800-yen ($390 USD).

The Kirobo Mini was purposefully designed to appear childlike. Chief designer Fuminori Kataoka told The Guardian, “He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself. This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.”

The Kirobo Mini is able to communicate with its owner and, according to a promotional video from Toyota UK (below), it can even recognize and respond to facial expressions. The narrator explains, “At times, the Kirobo Mini senses your feelings through your expressions and talks to you.”

Toyota UK on YouTube

The video even includes a moment in which the robot encourages its owner about a job interview. (Frankly, this looks to me like the beginning of an episode of Black Mirror, but maybe I watch too much dystopian sci-fi.)

Toyota UK

Kataoka has said that the Kirobo Mini is supposed to tap into people’s emotions, but it’s not totally clear whose emotions are being targeted and for what purpose. A number of news outlets have cited Japan’s declining population as context for the companion robot. Reuters reports that in the last 50 years, Japan’s birthrate has dropped by half, leading to a population that will soon have a disproportionate number of elderly people, without enough young people to care for them.

At Reuters, Naomi Tajitsu suggests that the Kirobo Mini is meant to be a “synthetic baby companion” for women who are childless. But whereas Tajitsu seems to interpret the robot as a cure for loneliness, others seem to believe that the robot is intended to spark parental emotions and encourage young people to have babies. Marc Prosser at Forbes suggests that the intentions behind the robot may be altogether simpler; he believes that the Kirobo Mini may be little more than a marketing ploy, created with the hope of getting more customers interested in Toyota vehicles.  

One thing that’s clear is that people in Japan are more used to and more comfortable with being around robots than people in most other parts of the world. After South Korea, Japan has the highest density of industrial robots in the world, with 314 robots for every 100,000 workers, according to the Guardian. Increasingly, robots in Japan are growing beyond the industrial world and are moving further into companion spaces.