If you find lifelike robots unnerving, try attending a news conference held by a pair of androids.
That was the scene on Tuesday in Tokyo when the androids Kodomoroid and Otonaroid introduced a new pair of communication robots developed by an Osaka-based company, Vstone, and its partners.
Sota and CommU, each about 30cm tall, engaged in dialog with their full-sized counterparts at the Miraikan technology museum as journalists looked on, entranced. The smaller, tabletop droids can only move their arms and upper bodies, but spoke in cute Japanese resembling the speech of a toddler.
"We're good at natural dialog and that's tough to do," CommU, which looks like a baby, told Otonaroid, a hyper-realistic robot "woman." The exchange was like a cybernetic mother and child, evoking both the lifelike "replicant" androids and the sentient toys in the 1982 science fiction film "Blade Runner."
Kodomoroid and Otonaroid have been a feature at the museum since last summer, providing information to visitors, and are not for sale.
Sota (short for "Social Talker"), however, may hit the market around April for under ¥100,000 (US$852), according to Vstone. Developed in collaboration with Osaka University and the Japan Science and Technology Agency's Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) program, the cartoonish Sota is powered by an Intel Edison single-board computer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and expresses itself via voice, arm movements and LEDs in its eyes and mouth. It also has a camera, speaker and microphone.
The baby-like CommU, still in the research phase, is more sophisticated, with moving eyelids and 14 axes of movement compared to Sota's eight, and is powered by a Raspberry Pi Model B+ single-board computer with HDMI and USB ports.
In a promotional video introduced by the androids, Sota and CommU were seen welcoming a woman when she arrived home, as well as discussing the weather and practicing English. The scene was somewhat poignant as Japan is struggling with a declining and aging population due to its low birthrate.
After the news conference, one of the robots' human developers explained the project's goals.
"The purpose of ERATO is to develop a fully autonomous interactive robot, and this is just the first stage," said Osaka University roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, whose robotic creations include android versions of himself and his daughter as well as Kodomoroid and Otonaroid. "Precise voice recognition is difficult in robots but by watching the interaction between two robots, we can have a very realistic feeling of conversation."
The developers have submitted a patent application based on their insights into how to make robot conversation sound natural, including the timing of questions and answers, Ishiguro added.
The news conference had scripted dialogs and there were human operators remotely controlling the full-sized androids, but Sota will have voice and image recognition abilities and can be loaded with various apps. Sota could be used to help sell electronics and other products, according to Ishiguro.
That approach is also being taken up by mobile carrier SoftBank's humanoid robot Pepper, which has been deployed to help sell Nestle coffee machines in Japan. Pepper is slated to go on sale this year in Japan for around ¥200,000.