You know the world is churning out some depressing headlines when news that Takara Tomy has created a robotic talking grandchild to provide comfort and companionship to Japan’s elderly isn’t anywhere near the saddest news of the week — but it definitely comes close.
Using robots to give the elderly something to engage with is far from a new idea, but to date, we’ve mostly seen it done with robotic versions of animals including dogs, cats, and even singing birds. Given the current limits of technology, it’s much easier to create a somewhat convincing artificial pet than a believable human being, but with Ami-chan, Takara Tomy has taken a more cartoony approach to avoid the uncanny valley altogether. The robot looks like a character from a Studio Ghibli movie, with large exaggerated eyes and a tiny subtle smile, so it definitely leans more towards cute than creepy.
Although Ami-chan can blink its eyes, or close them altogether to simulate falling asleep, that’s about the extent of its movements and animated features. It mostly just sits there, like a doll, but encourages physical interactions through a robust use of verbal communication. The robot has a vocabulary of around 1,600 Japanese words and can learn more, including the names of the grandparent currently interacting with it. It also features a camera so that it can use facial recognition to visually identify who it’s talking to, and then address them by their proper name to create more of a believable bond.
In addition to engaging in a back-and-forth chat using speech recognition, Ami-chan also sings 40 different nursery rhymes and songs, some that only play given what time of year it is, as well as games like tongue twisters which are cleverly designed as brain training exercises. The robo-grandkid can also be rocked to sleep, triggering a simulated nap which even includes the bot talking in its sleep which starts to veer back towards creepy again.
With a price tag of around $US250 ($350), Ami-chan isn’t cheap, but unlike getting grandma or grandpa a new puppy or kitten, it’s cheaper in the long run because its only real need is a fresh set of C-sized batteries every now and then. What might also make the price tag easier to swallow is that for $US250 ($350) you’re basically unloading a whole bunch of guilt for not calling or visiting your grandparents as often as you know you should be.