As Japan's Population Shrinks, Robot Babies Are Gaining Popularity

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The 2015 Japanese census laid out a frightening realization for the country: its population is shrinking. In just five years, between 2010 and 2015, Japan's population shrunk by almost 1 million—an unusually high drop for a country not dealing with a disaster like famine or plague. But while everyone is quick to blame so-called "parasite singles" or a lack of immigration, Toyota is looking for a solution. Their recent proposal? Robots.

In October, the car manufacturer introduced the Kirobo Mini, a robot designed to form an emotional connection with a population that is getting older and not reproducing at a rate to sustain population numbers. This is actually a miniaturized version of the original Kirobo robot, which was slightly larger and sent to the International Space Station to keep astronauts company during long voyages (it was also the first-ever talking robot in space).

"He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn't fully developed the skills to balance itself," Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini's chief design engineer, said. "This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection."

In addition to all that wobbling, the Kirobo Mini will blink its "eyes," mimic the high-pitched type of baby talk familiar to new parents, and recognize facial expressions through the use of a built-in camera. It's small enough to sit inside a cradle that snaps into a vehicle's cup holder, but powerful enough to simulate the intelligence of a 5-year-old.

Toyota didn't come right out and say it, but the belief among many is that these companion babies are designed to tap into the parental instincts of Kirobo owners, possibly leading them to want a real child of their own.

This strategy is similar to the one used by the team behind Yotaro, another robot baby introduced in Japan in 2010. This one used projection technology to put an emotive face on the robot, promoting a bond with its owners (and hopefully leading to some flesh-and-blood babies in the future).

"A robot can't be human but it's great if this robot triggers human emotions, so humans want to have their own baby," Hiroki Kunimura, the project leader for the Yotaro robot, told CNN at the time.

Each Kirobo Mini will retail for 39,800 yen, or $390, when it is released next year.