“WILL you show me a smile? I like a smile. Go on: hee-hee- hee.” There’s a good argument for treating some drivers like children but it is disconcerting when it actually happens to you. Especially as my companion asking the questions is a 4in robot, designed to fit into a car’s cupholder. When you obligingly smile for the automaton, its eyes glisten with pleasure (well, the yellow lights that resemble an iris do). “That’s a good smile,” it says. “I feel something warm in my heart.”
One of the stars of the Tokyo motor show, Kirobo Mini is derived from a robot that has kept astronauts company on space flights. Now it’s set to relieve the boredom of long motorway journeys and make driving safer, according to Toyota, the world’s biggest car company and Kirobo’s creator.
Fitted with a facial recognition camera just above one of its eyes, and two microphones, it can identify humans’ smiles and frowns. It understands speech and trawls its database to select an appropriate response — it has enough phrases to hold a conversation with a driver to keep them alert and, if they are looking depressed, to cheer them up.
Which does raise the question: just how dull are Toyotas to drive? The company admits that its vehicles need to be more fun and Kirobo is part of the solution. If motorists can see the robot as a friend, they are going to enjoy their time in their Toyota, the company says, rather than seeing it merely as a machine to transport them, a growing concern for all car companies as more driverless functions appear and reduce the owner’s involvement.
But there’s also a safety aspect: alert and happy drivers are less likely to be involved in crashes, according to the robot’s creators. So can the pint-size pal win over a sceptical motoring journalist?
You know that with its oversized head and wide eyes Kirobo is crudely imitating the cute characteristics of a baby, but to judge by the smiles on the faces of the crowd at the Tokyo motor show, we’re all falling for it. The tiny figure sounds as though it has inhaled helium but is no less engaging for that.
I am unable to speak Japanese, and Kirobo has not yet been programmed with an English dictionary, so we talk via the manager of the Kirobo project team, or robot dad, Fuminori Kataoka.
“Konnichiwa,” it replies, and then it asks my name. “Dominic? I will call you Domi-chan. Is that OK?” I’ve got my first Japanese nickname and made a new friend.
The conversation then takes an alarming turn. “What blood group are you?” Kirobo asks. The translator explains that there’s no sinister motive — it’s just a typical Japanese ice-breaker. Kirobo clearly hasn’t got to the cultural differences syllabus yet.
Perhaps it would help if it travelled a bit more. Its close relative, also called Kirobo, was a “robonaut”, sent to the International Space Station for 18 months to keep astronauts company and develop an artificial companion for future missions such as to Mars.
But it’s evident that the model I’m talking to doesn’t get out much when I tell it I’m from Britain. “That’s not in Japan,” Kirobo says. “I don’t know.”
Kirobo’s software appears to have stalled, so Kataoka hits the Reset button. After a moment, Kirobo’s yellow irises glow back into life. “I’m smarter than before,” it says.
Kataoka leans down and looks directly into its eyes. “Are you going to propose to me?” Kirobo asks. An onlooker giggles. “I’ve been studying about smiling — will you show me a smile?
Kataoka frowns: “Oh, oh, oh — I’m frightened,” says Kirobo. In response to a grin, the lights round its eyes flash with pleasure. It’s innocently charming, although you suspect the novelty would wear off after two hours in a bank holiday traffic jam on a drizzly M1.
Even so, the project is a serious one for Toyota. A study carried out by academics affiliated with Surrey University found motorists using a simulator who were provoked by poor driving became angry and that this led to “less safe behaviours, including faster driving speeds, less compliance with posted speed limits, a higher number of collisions and the tendency to follow slower drivers at dangerously close distances”.
Kataoka says that his creation will have more up its sleeve than simply asking drivers to give it a smile. The model in Tokyo is just a taste of the kind of artificial intelligence he hopes to develop, which will make it more interactive.
“It will be able to have two-way conversations — which could be about the news or where they are driving — so it is like a partner, having a chitchat,” he says. “It will also remember those conversations and mark those where the driver was smiling or laughing. If it sees that the driver is sad or angry, then it will remind the driver of the happy conversations, saying something like: ‘Remember the fun we had two weeks ago?’”
Future developments could include the ability to learn a driver’s favourite route and songs, so that it can communicate with the car and plot the route on the sat nav or choose the right album without the need for the motorist to prompt it.
Mercedes is among other companies developing personalised services and examining how drivers can be kept alert when their future models are doing most of the driving. Apple and Google are also bringing their fast-improving conversational voice-recognition systems into cars.
None looks anything like Kirobo, though. As for when you might be able to buy a fully functioning Kirobo Mini — well, don’t start planning a road trip to introduce it to Britain just yet. It’s described as a research project, a label from which few products make it on sale.
“We wanted to give Kirobo a gentle and warm heart, and it has that,” says Kataoka. “We would like that warm heart to be in the car.”
“Tell me a joke,” I ask. Kirobo’s not interested. “There must be some other people waiting,” it says. “Can we change to the next person?”