Exclusive Interview with Robi’s Creator Tomotaka Takahashi: Smart Devices Should Become People’s Trusting Companions

27 Apr

On the stage, a hundred voice-controlled miniature humanoid robots were assembled in front of a group of curious onlookers. At command, these robots rose up from their sitting position and began to dance. They swung their arms and shook their hips in unison with the music. These robots could even do count-offs and Mexican waves smoothly. “Robi” as these adorable robots are called, are from Japan and their ability to perform synchronized routines as a team has delighted audiences everywhere.

The performance mentioned above was a program in Taiwan’s first major Japan tourism expo, “Touch the Japan”, organized by Japan’s Tourism Promotion Associates. The “Robi army” and their commander/creator, Tomotaka Takahashi, were especially invited to the event. TechNews was granted an exclusive interview with Takahashi to learn more about his robotics research and views on future technology trends.


▲ A hundred Robi come to Taiwan under invitation to perform dance routines. (TechNews Photo)

The significance of human-robot interactions

Takahashi’s dream of humans talking and mingling with small humanoid robots is inspired by Astro Boy, a sci-fi manga series he read as a child. The design of Robi was much based on the comics’ robot protagonist. Takahashi’s other sources of creativity are industrial design and fashion.

Takahashi has devoted 15 years of his life in R&D of robots and during this period he has built numerous humanoid robots, both large and small. The aim for each of his creation has always been establishing a user-robot relationship, and this goal is realized by focusing on interactive features and miniaturization of the product. What is not emphasized during the development process is the mechanical power that a robot can wield, so building giant robots has never been Takahashi’s ambition.


▲ Robi is 34cm tall and looks very precious. (TechNews Photo)

Robi’s construction requires 20 servo motors, and the robot’s movements are controlled by a high-performance microcontroller board. Other essential components include motion sensors that detect human presence and a speech recognition board. Robi’s features are made to be user-friendly so that consumers will be not be turned off by overly complicated functions. Takahashi’s robot design is simple inside and out as well as being all-inclusive, from appearance, motions, and to communications. For him, achieving a sense of harmony in the overall design is the most difficult task.

De Agostini, an Italy-based publishing company, has the exclusive right to sell Robi and promotes this product as a DIY project. Those who wish to have the robot will have to buy 70 issues of a weekly magazine that come with the assembly parts. Once the modelling is finished, Robi will be able to fully interact with its owner. Robi’s marketing so far has been very successful in raising people’s curiosity and desire to buy the product. Takahashi also noted he was surprised by the large number of female customers. Robi’s was initially aim at male consumers, but presently 30% of the product’s customer base is female.


▲ The Robi dance squad amazes the audience with their well-coordinated and fluid dance moves.

Zeroing in on the next-gen smart communication devices

Takahashi’s mission for Robi goes beyond advancing human-robot interaction. “Ultimately, Robi is designed to be part of the technology trend rather than just being a companion for people,” he said. The future of robotics industry in his vision is not a world where humanoid robots are made for serving basic or therapeutic needs. Takahashi sets his sights higher and has plans to create the next generation of smart communication devices. Robi’s success for him will be the stepping-stone to a new path of technological innovations.

Takahashi believes right now the interaction between human and smart communication devices have been one-sided. He acknowledges the progress being made on voice-enabled intelligent personal assistant, such as Apple’s Siri with its excellent voice-recognition function. From his perspective, however, users have yet to get into the habit of conversing with their smartphones and would probably not build a trusting and shared relationship with an uncommunicative device.


▲ Robi will sit on this yellow chair when it needs a recharge. (TechNews Photo)

As expected, Takahashi’s ideal smart communication device is a miniature humanoid robot that will be a part of people’s intimate, everyday lives. He believes that humans should be able to interact with smart devices as they do with pets. An example of a companion animal that Takahashi wants robots to take after is “Jiji”, a black cat accompanying the main protagonist in the animated fantasy film Kiki’s Delivery Service. The role of these robots is to assist people in their daily routines by exchanging information and opening up new channels of communication. “It will be awesome if smart devices are able to establish trusting relationships with their users to the point of having hear-to-heart conversations with them,” Takahashi firmly asserts.

During the interview, Takahashi also revealed that he is currently working with a smartphone company to build a portable smart communication device, modeled like a tiny humanoid robot of course. Though the dimension of this product is slightly larger than iPhone 6, the passionate roboticist is still frustrated by the fact he cannot shrink it just a bit smaller. As for features, Takahashi is tight-lipped about the details other than saying the device will have smartphone’s standard functions. It is not yet certain whether the device will have a camera or other special tools and apps. The prototype of this new marvel has been made and Takahashi expects that the product will enter mass production within a few years.

The future is bright for artificial intelligence

When talking with TechNews, Takahashi is quite open about his personal views on the future of robotics. Though the Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is actively supporting the industry, Takahashi felt he would take a different approach to this sector’s development. He hopes that in the future the industry will concentrate mainly on communication devices that facilitate the flow and exchange of information. Moreover, these devices come with powerful artificial intelligence (A.I.) and are able to actively interact with users, becoming an agent only among people, but also between our world and the digital world.

Like other social relationships, Takahashi believes the interactions between humans and robots will change as they appreciate and trust each other. As for the fear of A.I. developing to a level that threatens mankind’s existence, the roboticist strongly disputes this notion. Takahashi thinks humans are integral to the development of A.I. so it is unlikely to rebel as long as we are around.


▲ Takahashi with Robi at the opening of the first annual “Touch the Japan” tourism expo (TechNews Photo)

The arrival of Takahashi’s Robi army is a culmination of many years of hard work, and the people of Taiwan gets to experience an emotional warmth that the high-tech sector rarely brings. Hopefully, Takashi will show us his next-gen smart communication device the next time he is here in Taiwan. Like Robi, his newest invention will undoubtedly realize his ideals as well as redefine people’s expectation.

(original article by: Angela Yang; translator: Thomas Hsu)


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