Talking robot to keep space station astronauts company

The first talking robot astronaut is en route to the International Space Station for trials of the artificial companion’s abilities to stave off loneliness.

The 34cm-tall android named Kirobo is designed to help scientists at the University of Tokyo study how robots could help provide emotional support to isolated people by monitoring its communication with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.

Kirobo set off for the ISS yesterday morning aboard Japan’s latest cargo transport mission, in preparation for the arrival in November of Wakata, who will be the only Japanese astronaut onboard during his assignment as station commander.

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According to the project’s website, Kirobo’s mission is: ‘To help solve the problems brought about by a society that has become more individualised and less communicative.

‘Nowadays, more and more people are living alone. It’s not just the elderly – with today’s changing lifestyles, it’s people of all ages. With a new style of robot-human interface, perhaps a way to solve this problem could be found.’

Kirobo, whose name is a combination of the Japanese words for “hope” and “robot”, was designed by the University of Tokyo’s renowned android expert Tomotaka Takahashi.

His company Robo Garage worked with engineers from Toyota to build the device, which includes voice and facial recognition systems and language processing abilities, while advertising agency Dentsu provided the conversation content.

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Kirobo spent months in training with its creator, Tomotaka Takahashi (left), before its launch into space.

Kirobo underwent months of testing in preparation for becoming an astronaut, trialling its ability to cope with low-gravity, vibration and electromagnetic radiation, as well as tests that it wouldn’t make too much noise or release toxic gases.

Once aboard, Kirobo will record its conversations with Wakata and relay messages to him from the control room. A second robot, named Mirata, will monitor the experiment from Earth.

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Kirobo is designed to withstand vibration, heat and radiation.

Kirobo will be the ISS’s second android resident, following the arrival of NASA’s Robonaut 2 (R2), a robotic torso in use since August 2011 that can help the human astronauts perform maintenance.

NASA is planning to equip R2 with climbing legs that will enable it to move around the ISS and potentially carry out work on the outside of the station.