Dentsu and Toyota's Cute Robotic Astronaut Just Returned From Outer Space

Kirobo's 18-Month Stint in Space Is Over, But Dentsu's Work With Robots Continues

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Kirobo, the talking robot, in outer space
Kirobo, the talking robot, in outer space

While aboard the International Space Station, Kirobo – a 13-inch tall humanoid robot – sent messages back to earth for social media, made small talk with a Japanese astronaut and spoke of his dream "to create a future where people and robots can live happily together."

The Japanese robot, developed partly by Toyota and ad giant Dentsu, flew back to earth Wednesday after 18 months in space. Dentsu Inc. said the robot traveled inside one of Elon Musk's SpaceX crafts, the CRS-5 Dragon, which splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. On Twitter, Mr. Musk posted a picture of the craft floating into the water, suspended from two striped parachutes.

Robots against loneliness

While aboard, Kirobo and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata held the "world's first conversation experiment between a human and a robot in outer space, and conducted research for a future in which humans and robots coexist," Dentsu said in a statement. (Japan has a thing for androids and doesn't seem to see a freaky side to a future with more robots in it – companies from Honda to Sony have all made them.)

Conversations between the android and the astronaut were mostly chitchat, aside from a goodbye in May when Mr. Wakata was getting ready to leave the space station ahead of the robot. A YouTube video of that conversation had a nostalgic piano track, and Mr. Wakata apologized for leaving Kirobo behind. "I'll be all right, I'm a robot," he responded.

The goal was to see how talking, humanoid robots might help people in a society where more and more people, including the elderly, live alone. Launching the project four years ago, Dentsu said the "fact that the robot is human-like will make it easier to personify, and that will enable smoother communications."

Loneliness can be an issue for astronauts, too. One concern about sending astronauts to Mars is that astronauts might suffer from isolation and depression while leaving the earth for over two years.

Besides Toyota and Dentsu, the others involved in the Kirobo project were the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, Robo Garage Co. and JAXA, the Japanese aerospace exploration agency. A debriefing session on the project will take place in March.

Android entertainers

Toyota Motor Corp. created the robot's voice and facial recognition functions, and said it would use the experiments to improve its robotics and interactive conversation technology.

Dentsu created Kirobo's conversational content and managed the project, and it's got more plans for robots.

Left: Matsukoroid, a robot modeled on Matsuko Deluxe. Right: the real Matsuko Deluxe.
Left: Matsukoroid, a robot modeled on Matsuko Deluxe. Right: the real Matsuko Deluxe. Credit: Dentsu

In November, the company launched the Dentsu Robot Center to develop robots and consult about how to use them in advertising, character licensing and creating content for events.

The company's first project was called Matsukoroid, which The Japan Times described as "a life-size humanoid robot modeled on Matsuko Deluxe, a popular plus-sized cross-dressing TV star." It was developed under Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro.

The paper quoted Dentsu as saying that "the need to develop android entertainers will grow."