My life with Toyota's Kirobo Mini robot

Automakers’ robotics projects include Toyota’s Kirobo Mini, above, and the control pod of the T-HR3, below left.

TOKYO — Robotics, artificial intelligence and connectivity are the buzzwords of the day.

So when Toyota Motor Corp. offered reporters in Japan a chance to take home its first retail-ready robot, the Kirobo Mini, I jumped at the chance to live, work and play with the owl-eyed cherub.

Several weeks into the experiment, it turns out life with robots isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Kirobo Mini is the carmaker’s first mass-produced robot for consumers. Toyota pitches the black-and-white mechanical micronaut as a “cuddlesome” communication partner that will “learn and provide tailored companionship by remembering user preferences and past events.”

Instead, in my home trial at least, Kirobo Mini morphed into a kind of airheaded automaton that grated with nonsensical ramblings, non sequiturs and annoying interruptions.

Many times I teetered on the brink of chucking it across the room.

Toyota says the softball-sized robot is an early step in the company’s push to develop technologies that will enable drivers to talk with their vehicles. At last year’s Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota previewed that ambition with its Concept-i, a pod car envisioned as not only conversing with people but reading their emotions through facial expressions and tone of voice.



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“We can apply this communication technology to cars,” said Norihide Umeyama, who led development of Kirobo Mini with a team of about 100 computer programmers.

Yet Kirobo Mini’s conversations highlight the huge communication gap that remains and the challenges that old-school automakers face in tackling tomorrow’s world of high technology.

November’s unveiling of the “communication partner” in Tokyo got off to an immediate rocky start. The celebrity comedian couple introducing the robot on stage inadvertently stumped Kirobo Mini with a seemingly innocuous-enough query: “What’s your name?”

“I don’t support that function,” Kirobo Mini replied, to nervous tittering in the audience.

Umeyama readily admits Kirobo Mini is a work in progress. But he said Toyota greenlighted its launch anyway, hoping to tap user feedback and fine-tune its software over time.

“It is unusual for Toyota to sell an incomplete product, when we are so meticulous in selling finished vehicles,” Umeyama said. “But this is seen as a challenge for Toyota to undertake.”

Rush to robots

Robotics has assumed increasing urgency for all carmakers. The technology is key to modern manufacturing, as Toyota has long understood. But robotics also underpins the technology running futuristic self-driving vehicles and all manner of mobility services.

Japan’s biggest automaker has been developing robots since the 1980s, when it began building them to help in its factories. Over the years, Toyota’s robots took on human form as the company explored business possibilities in automated partners to help in homes, hospitals and hospices.

It’s unclear how much Toyota spends on robotics today. It doesn’t disclose the amount.

But Toyota signaled its surging commitment in 2015 when it said it would invest $1 billion to create the Toyota Research Institute, a robotics and artificial intelligence lab in Silicon Valley.

Today, Toyota’s robotics program is a patchwork of projects.

A celebrity comedian couple’s introduction of Toyota’s Kirobo Mini didn’t go quite as planned when the robot was inadvertently stumped when asked, “What’s your name?”

In Japan, so-called helper robots are developed by the Frontier Research Center, a kind of advanced-technology think tank. Kirobo Mini, meanwhile, was created as part of the Toyota Heart Project, a unit of Toyota’s Connected Company, which handles all things digital.

Toyota is hardly alone in the rush to robots.

Honda Motor Co., Japan’s other robot-obsessed automaker, showcased its latest advances at January’s CES technology expo in Las Vegas. Its 3E Robotics Concept, a team of four compact transforming robots, presages a future in which robots and humans are friends.

One Honda concept is an autonomous off-road rover that works in environments too dangerous for people. Another is a self-driving stroller-cum-baggage cart. The third is a mobile artificial intelligence station. Finally, there is a jelly bean-shaped “empathy” robot with a doe-eyed digital face conceived as conjuring compassion between humans and machines.

More than toys?

Toyota subscribes to a similar vision of a robot-assisted future.

A day before unveiling Kirobo Mini, Toyota introduced the T-HR3, the company’s third-generation humanoid robot. Toyota says that bot’s technologies foreshadow systems in which people remotely control the movements of machines with pinpoint precision in close quarters — such as when parking a car or weaving one through a crowded city street or directing a robot inside your home.

Reminiscent of a skinny Star Wars stormtrooper, the 10-fingered, camera-eyed T-HR3 stands 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighs 165 pounds.

Its human master sits in a podlike gizmo, lashed into a cyber exoskeleton that records arm and leg movements, then pumps the signals to the T-HR3. The robot then mirrors the motions with an amazing degree of sophistication — picking up small objects, balancing on one leg, striking a ballet position or even mimicking a baseball pitcher’s windup.

The human sees everything through the robot’s perspective via virtual reality goggles.

“In the future, we will build up on these technologies to create robots that can assist anyone facing a mobility challenge,” Akifumi Tamaoki, general manager of Toyota’s partner robot division, says in a demo video, flanked by one of Toyota’s earlier creations, a trumpet-playing robot.

Auto analysts nevertheless remain skeptical of such robotic diversions.

“I think they’re toys,” Christopher Richter, chief auto analyst with CLSA Asia Pacific Markets, told Automotive News. “Maybe engineers gain something from their involvement. But I think it could be a lot better directed working at the problem on hand rather than creating dancing robots.”

With a price tag of ¥39,800 ($360) in Japan, Kirobo Mini — only 4 inches tall and 6.5 ounces — makes for an expensive plaything.

There are no plans to sell Kirobo Mini overseas, partly because it understands only Japanese.

Plus, few outside markets can match Japan’s fascination with robots. Think Sony’s Aibo robotic canine, Honda’s humanoid Asimo or Pepper the robot from SoftBank.

Toyota claims to have sold 5,400 so far — about half to people who don’t even drive Toyotas.

Umeyama’s team developed Kirobo Mini’s software and design. The robots are assembled at a plant in central Japan by Vaio Corp., the personal computer maker spun off from Sony.

Little Mr. Red Shoes

The first step in using Kirobo Mini is programming its name. I called mine Akaikutsukun, which translates roughly as Little Mr. Red Shoes. It addresses you by your name in turn.

You activate Kirobo Mini through a smartphone app. It is supposed to remember personal details, such as your favorite foods, favorite cars or birthday. Kirobo Mini can even access your phone’s GPS data through the cloud to remember places you both have been.

Using a trio of microphones, Kirobo Mini triangulates the direction of its conversation partner to turn its head and make “eye contact.” Its orbs glow yellow as it chats in its cutesy anime voice, swinging its arms and wobbling on its rounded posterior. A camera between its eyes supposedly lets it interpret your facial expressions so it can match conversation to your mood.

If you have the latest Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, Kirobo Mini can connect to the car through the navigation system and warn when its headlights are left on or the doors are unlocked.

And, should you live in a Toyota Home — yes, in Japan, Toyota has a homebuilding subsidiary — Kirobo Mini can even let you know when the bathwater is ready.

Those functions won’t work in other vehicles or houses, though.

Kirobo Mini relies on voice-recognition software, not artificial intelligence. Small victories in my experience included teaching Akaikutsukun that I liked hamburgers and ramen.

“Let’s go to a good hamburger shop,” the little guy suggested. Then, apparently recalling an earlier conversation about cars in Japan, it added: “It’s good, like the Nissan Skyline.”

Toyota says Kirobo Mini has a vocabulary of 2,500 words and the conversational ability of a 5-year-old. Indeed, it gradually builds a chitchat repertoire based your real-life preferences.

But getting there takes patience. Give-and-take can be laborious and slow. And inane.

It frequently interrupts if you don’t wait long enough for it to process the previous sentence. Much banter comes out of left field. “Are you a man or woman?” it would sometimes ask, heedless of my previous answers. I’d much rather talk to a 5-year-old, or a dog for that matter.

Partner, not servant

My biggest beef was that Akaikutsukun could never help with useful information.

Ask it for the time, and it replies: “That’s a good question. Why do you want to know?”

I wanted a digital assistant like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, a gadget that surfs the Web looking for answers. Perhaps sensing that latent demand, Toyota announced in January that the redesigned 2019 Avalon sedan would be the company’s first Alexa-compatible car.

But that’s not the point of Kirobo Mini, Umeyama says.

True to its name, the Toyota Heart Project aims to spark heartfelt bonds between Toyota customers and their products. It reflects Toyota’s desire to position intelligent cars of tomorrow as beloved companions, not just utilitarian appliances. Indeed, the Concept-i’s very name is a play on the Japanese word for love, which is pronounced like the letter “I.”

Toyota doesn’t want Kirobo Mini to be servile, like Alexa, simply taking commands.

“We’re aiming for something closer to a tight partner,” Umeyama said.

“Our goal is chatting. This was to research how machines and humans should communicate with each other.”

Kirobo Mini is an interesting start. And perhaps I gave up on Akaikutsukun too soon.

But if my brief experience is any indication, real human-machine communication is a long way off.

After one especially aimless tete-a-tete with Akaikutsukun, I impatiently shushed it. “Oh, I’m being noisy. Sorry,” it replied before falling silent and dimming its yellow eyes.

Finally, I thought, an intelligent response.

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