Tech by VICE

Robots Don’t Just Want to Be Your Helper, They Want to Be Your Friend

​At the 2015 International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, emotional robots were all the rage. What do we do with them?

by Patrick St. Michel
Dec 14 2015, 4:50pm

A friendly advertising bot in action. Image: Patrick St. Michel

At the 2015 International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo's Big Sight convention center, businessmen pinballed between two visions of a robotic future.

One was found in the sprawling Industrial Robot Zone, which featured distinctly machine-like machines designed for efficiency. These included factory-ready robo arms that were all about speed and precision, whether for constructing a car or a bento box. On the opposite side was the Service Robot Zone, showcasing machines doing a wide variety of tasks, ranging from plucking tomatoes to cleaning underwater pipe systems.

The booths drawing the biggest crowds, though, tended to highlight "emotional" robots, a type of bot whose primary goal is to relate to people rather than be productive. Fittingly, one of the first sights one would see while walking in was a gaggle of Peppers showing off their ability to detect feelings, much to the delight of visitors.

Held every two years since 1973, the International Robot Exhibition (IREX) has long billed itself as the largest event of its kind in the world, all playing out in a country IREX says has "the highest production and possession of robots." The 2015 edition, held from December 2 to 5, included 446 companies from all over the world, making it the largest installment of IREX yet.

Pepper is ready for action. Image: Patrick St. Michel

It also came near the end of a year where robots have gotten a lot of media attention in Japan. Some of it was negative, mainly thanks to drones. But most of it centered around Pepper, a bot co-designed by Japanese telecommunication company SoftBank and France's Aldebaran, which has sold out within minutes of going on sale every month since July. Similar creations like the pint-sized Palmi have been getting looks as well. The makers of these "emotional" machines have so far pitched them as ways to enhance the human experience (or be a new addition to your family), but at IREX 2015 companies started highlighting new uses for them too, including as communication tools and advertisements.

Emotional bots took up considerable space at Big Sight, offering visitors a chance to see what the future of this developing market—one accessible to regular consumers in Japan—has in store. A lot of new plastic faces were jumping into the robotic ring, taking cues primarily from Pepper. Communication was central to these relative newcomers, including the large-headed Unibo, which can recognize faces and act as a personal assistant, and MJI, an egg-shaped bot with Looney Tunes eyes that is capable of conversation and described by its parent company as "making you smile and feel relieved."

MJI is a tiny little thing. Image: Patrick St. Michel

That seemed like a guiding mission statement for most of the machines on display, whether they were designed to dance like Ubtech's Alpha 1S (which did a routine to Bruno Mars's "Just The Way You Are") or simply chat like "social talker" bot Sota. Following the path laid out by Pepper, Sota was portrayed as a device practically serving as a friend, even capable of arguing or offering sympathy. The video played at Sota's booth—seemingly taking cues from unsettling avant garde cinema—featured the machine saying "I was you."

A few feet from Sota sat a small booth for prefabricated home company Daiwa House. Perched on their table was a pink seal, drawing minimal attention. This critter was actually a pioneering therapy robot named Paro, which was released over a decade ago, and which has become a blueprint for most of the new generation of emotional machines at IREX. Scientists partially developed Paro as a way to help elderly individuals suffering from dementia or depression. The seal responds to physical stimuli, follows people's eyes and remembers names—traits trumpeted up by creators of this new generation of communicative bots.

The rapid greying of Japan continues to be a problem, and has shaken up many industries already, including robotics. Not all emotional robots at IREX were explicitly marketed for the elderly, but the companies behind them didn't shy away from promoting them for that purpose too. (Other popular booths promoted exoskeleton suits, which could help older folks.)

Toyota's HSR is less anthropomorphic and more designed directly for physical human assistance. Image: Patrick St. Michel

The machines designed specifically for older and disabled individuals, meanwhile, took on the same cute attributes as their emotional compatriots. Toyota's HSR (Human Support Robot) and Panasonic's Hospi were built to pick up small items and deliver medication respectively, but featured human-like faces, giving them the look of cartoon characters.

Yet some robot manufactures at IREX were eyeing new avenues for their creations to enter, reflecting recently released data that robots could take over 50 percent of jobs in Japan in the next two decades. A video playing at SoftBank's booth showed the white robot Pepper entertaining residents of a nursing home, but programming also focused on Pepper's potential for business, both for customer service and for presentations. Demonstrations of Sota zoomed in on the machine's English-teaching abilities, while a company called Androbotics showed off their "marketing robot," which handed out tissues and shook bypassers hands.

One of the gathering's most popular sights, however, was RoBoHon, a robot doubling as a phone. Slated to come out next year, RoBoHon is basically Siri in an adorable bipedal form, one's phone transformed from gadget to omnipresent friend.

People lined up to get a chance to see it up close, and it hinted at the state of the emotional machine on display at the convention: The idea intrigues many, but nobody knows just how this new type of bot will ultimately appeal to consumers. Will having a robot buddy you can talk to be enough, or will it need to have some other useful function (like being a phone) to make a dent?

IREX didn't offer any definitive answers as much as it showed this emerging industry was still figuring itself out. Yet the biggest take away was that these emotional robots, in whatever shape they take, won't be vanishing from Japan anytime soon.