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Toyota ingredients for Kirobo’s mission in space

First robot to hold a conversation with a human in space
This summer witnessed the launch of robot Kirobo to the International Space Station. While in space, the little robonaut will carry out a series of experiments, making history by becoming the first robot to hold a conversation with a human in space.

Kirobo in space

In a world full of satellite communications and ever-increasing space travel, launches into space are barely even noticed or written about. The launch on August 4 was different. Loaded onto a rocket at the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan was the Kounotori 4 (HTV4, or H-IIB Transfer Vehicle No. 4) cargo vehicle. Carefully secured within the cargo hold was a package measuring a mere 34cm high, weighing 1kg and marked “Kirobo”. Its destination: the International Space Station, one of mankind’s most exciting achievements in the 21st century. 

One of two humanoid verbal communication robots, Kirobo is part of the Kibo Robot Project. Toyota offered the company’s experience and knowhow for this unique and exciting experiment to provide voice and facial recognition to the little robonaut.


A world where humans and robots coexist

The robots of the future will have to have all the abilities of Kirobo: listening, answering and recognising, but also be able to gain knowledge and communicate with human warmth.  Since ancient times this warmth has been represented in Japan through the ideology of Wa, or harmony. By designing the robots now and in the future with this philosophy of compassion and hospitality, we can look forward to a world where humans and robots coexist as Kirobo said in his cute voice after arriving: “I want to live in a world where humans and robots can work together!”

Kaizen as the starting point

Like every process within Toyota, Kirobo’s development has been conducted under the Japanese practice of Kaizen, or continuous improvement. With a business or process fully immersed in the Kaizen practise, quality, procedures and morale will only improve. Input of all team members, identifying problems at all stages and empowering them to suggest ways to resolve and improve, a better end product can be the only result. 

This Toyota way of working has been copied around the world and in many areas of business. The rewards of this methodology can be seen with the enviable reputation Toyota has of being one of the most efficient and reliable car manufacturers in the world.


The first-ever human-robot conversation

With all the excitement surrounding Kirobo’s mission, it is important to remember that the long-term aim of the Kibo Robot Project is for robots to provide companionship to those who need them most. And Kirobo represents the first step towards this vision of the future.

Just before Christmas and after four months orbiting our planet, Kirobo successfully conducted the first-ever human-robot conversation in space when he chatted cheerfully to JAXA Commander Wakata while floating in zero-g.

Not only is Kirobo a great conversationalist, answering and exchanging questions with humans, the little robonaut is also a great listener as well as the impressive ability to recognise people.

Kirobo will remain in the “Kibo” experiment module – aptly named after the Japanese word for “hope” – during his stay, and after nearly one year in space, Kirobo is scheduled to return to Earth at the end of 2014 where he will be “debriefed” by mission control. From the data gathered and experiments carried out, we will be able to better understand human-robot interaction which could open up a whole host of possibilities for the future.