It is not a self-driving vehicle. It does not offer directions or traffic reports. And it cannot connect to the web to find the best coffee in the area. But Kirobo Mini, a four-inch tall robot that is part of the Toyota Heart Project, could represent an important step in artificial intelligence. The humanoid-looking robot with a friendly little mouth and big eyes can detect your emotions and respond to you with gestures and sounds.
The robot has an integrated camera, microphone and Bluetooth to connect it to a smartphone loaded with a special application. The robot can turn its head toward a voice and respond to questions in a high-pitched chatter—similar to a Furby, but with programming that makes it seem smarter.
Press reports say the robot has the intelligence of a five-year-old human. It speaks in a high-pitched voice, much like an over-excited five-year-old girl. The purpose of the robot—whose name is derived from the words “Kiro” (“hope”) and “robot”—is to, ultimately, collect data on people’s state of mind when driving. The technology could eventually be integrated into Toyota vehicles to improve the driving experience by suggesting music, places to visit, or routes to travel based on the driver’s mood.
For now, however, the robot remains little more than a chattering toy that can respond when you speak to it. The robot could keep Japanese drivers company on trips, providing a traveling companion of sorts. Companion robots are already common in Japan, and one that can fit neatly in your car’s cup holder—or even in a messenger bag during walks—could hold some appeal.
Kirobo Mini is modeled after the robot Kirobo, designed by Tomotaka Takahashi. The larger Kirobo accompanied astronauts on a mission to the international space station several years ago.