A Robot Conquers Outer Space

One small step for him, one giant leap for robot-kind. On the 4th of August 2013, the crew of the International Space Station ISS gains a new member. A robotic one, named Kirobo and only 34 centimeters in body height. His mission: having chats with the human astronauts. Being their moral support. Martina Mara from the Ars Electronica Futurelab met his creator Tomotaka Takahashi in Tokyo for – having a chat.

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One small step for him, one giant leap for robot-kind. On August 4th, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) is being joined by a new member—a robotic one named Kirobo. His height: a mere 34 centimeters. His mission: chatting with the human astronauts and giving them moral support. The Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Martina Mara was recently in Tokyo and had a pleasant chat with Kirobo’s creator, Tomotaka Takahashi.

Photo credit Toyota

Martina Mara: Tomotaka, you’re the one who designed Kirobo. On August 4th, the robotic astronaut is boarding an unmanned rocket that will take him to the ISS. May I ask what a 34-centimeter-tall humanoid robot is going to do up there?

Tomotaka Takahashi: Having conversations! That’s his purpose. But first he’ll wait for his partner, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who’s due to arrive at the ISS in late autumn this year. Kirobo is trained to recognize Wakata’s face. The two of them will listen and talk to each other, and Kirobo will bring smiles to the astronauts’ faces. And he’ll keep records of all his chats.

How did you come up with the idea of sending one of your humanoids into space?

One evening, a colleague from the Dentsu communications agency and I were in a bar having a beer and talking. We were inspired by the legendary Astro Boy, and suddenly got enthused about this idea.

Photo credit Toyota

Having a utopian idea is one thing, but I bet its realization is quite another …

Sure. For me, it was clear very quickly that we couldn’t wait for government funding in this case. We needed very strong partners to realize such an ambitious plan. Toyota, Dentsu and the Japanese space agency JAXA made it possible to implement this project.

What kinds of technical tests were necessary before Kirobo could blast off in the rocket?

We conducted many safety and zero-gravity tests with the robot. He’s able to navigate in a zero gravity environment.

Why do you think this project is important for the robotics community?

If a communications robot accompanies human astronauts into space, it’s a very meaningful moment for human-robot relationships. Many people will be watching this and developing their own future scenarios of friendly co-existence with robots in everyday life.

You speak of a new robot era that we’re heading into. How do you imagine human-robot interactions in our society’s future? What purpose will robots serve?

I don’t think that they’ll wash our dishes or execute any other physical household tasks. I rather imagine them becoming our personal communications assistants. They could help us deal with the growing pool of digital information, and they could serve as a hub controlling our many technological devices like air conditioners and home security systems. I think that in 15 years, the iPhone will be a little human-shaped robot.

What’s the unique point of using a human-shaped robot instead of a smartphone or remote control?

For us humans, it’s meaningful to talk to a robot, even aloud, whereas it can feel stupid to talk to a box. We can treat robots like living things—we can have our daily conversations with them or just quickly tell what temperature we would prefer in the bedroom or what TV show should be recorded.

Some robot developers—most successful among them, your good friend Hiroshi Ishiguro—try to create robots that emulate human beings as perfectly as possible, visually as well as behaviorally. According to the so-called uncanny valley phenomenon, people often find such android robots very creepy, whereas all of your robot designs have a very stylish, elegant or cute look …

I value all different approaches, but personally, I want to keep robots as robots. After all, we humans love machines too if they’re designed well. For example, I would certainly prefer a beautiful car-shaped car rather than a horse-shaped car.

Once your Kirobo has gained notoriety as the first communications robot in orbit, would you like to develop it further? What are your plans for the future?

Well, I would like to collaborate with companies such as Apple or Google to create something serious, a communications robot that would be useful for many people, something that’s much more than a toy. Maybe we could build a robot-shaped iPhone 9 (laughs) …

Many thanks for taking time out for this interview!

Tomotaka Takahashi / photo credit Martina Mara


Kirobo’s website: http://kibo-robo.jp/

Kirobo’s YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/KiboRobotProject

Robo Garage by Tomotaka Takahashi: http://www.robo-garage.com/

International Space Station ISS: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Human_Spaceflight/International_Space_Station