Palm-sized conversational robot by Toyota to sell in Japan next year

This picture taken on September 27, 2016 shows a Toyota employee displaying the company's new communication robot 'Kirobo Mini' during a press preview in Tokyo. Equipped with artificial intelligence and a built-in camera, the robot is capable of recognising the face of the person speaking to him and responding in unscripted conversation or even starting a chat. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP

People in Japan will soon be able to verbally communicate with a “palm-sized robot” developed by Toyota when it goes on sale next year. The Kirobo Mini is a 10cm high robot designed to provide companionship, according to Toyota. It has the incredible ability to tailor conversations and include comments about journeys based on vehicle data.

Experts told the BBC that while the robot has childlike attributes, it’s not a realistic substitute for a child. “He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself,” said Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini’s chief design engineer, speaking to Reuters. “This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.”

Large bulbs on the robot resemble eyes, giving the impression of youth, which maybe appeal to young people, says Prof Dr. Kerstin Dautenhahn, from the school of computer science at the University of Hertfordshire. She told the BBC: “It reminded me of the Tamagotchi – the idea of having a cute little thing that is not necessarily giving you the impression that it is alive, but has these lifelike attributes.”

The Kirobo Mini is capable of engaging in “casual conversation” and can use gestures, facial expressions and blinking. It can also remember user preferences and previous happenings, such as likes and dislikes; and it can use data collected from connected devices in the home to generate comments – a symbol of the Internet of Things movement, where all things are connected.

The robot will sell for 39,800 yen, and there are no current plans yet to sell it outside of Japan. It is considerably cheaper than other humanoid robots such as Aldebaran’s ‘Pepper’, which cost 198,000 yen at launch.