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The Sweet and Soothing Robots Coming Out of Japan

Murmuring robots
(Photo courtesy of ICD‑LAB)

What do you imagine when you hear the word 'robot'? Most people want robots to be convenient, efficient or perfect helpers, and there are already robots that play key roles in workplaces like factories, hospitals and construction sites. But in Japan, other types of robots are also attracting attention — robots with charming personalities that you'll just want to be friends with! Let's take a look at how these robots came about and what makes them popular.

Entertainment Robots: The Original Robot Pals

The first robot to emerge in Japan that wasn't designed to help out with work was 'entertainment robot' developed by a Japanese company. This four-legged walking robot, which could recognize and communicate with its owner, was first launched in 1999. It was a big hit when it was first released and sold out very quickly. This is the first example of a household robot that wasn't just made to help with work or chores.

This entertainment robot was first released in 1999. It has a metallic, mechanical design. (Photo courtesy of Sony Group Corporation)

More than a decade later, this entertainment robot was relaunched with an even more dog-like appearance. It's now equipped with advanced AI, walks around with natural movements, shows affection and enjoys being petted. For people who can't keep pets due to allergies, or for children who just want a playmate, it's as lovable as the real thing.

The design is now closer to that of a real dog, making it even more lovable than before. (Photo courtesy of Sony Group Corporation)

What Are 'Weak Robots' Developed in a Lab?

The ICD-LAB at Toyohashi University of Technology has researched and developed a number of robots that it calls 'weak robots.' What they mean by 'weak' is that the robots aren't perfect.
For example, the Sociable Trash Box is equipped with a camera and sensors to locate trash and can even move toward it, but can't actually pick the trash up by itself. Instead, it bows to people nearby, and relies on someone to help it out by picking the trash up for it. The lab found that people enjoy being needed, so they're usually happy to lend a hand.

Children are happy to pick up trash when the robot asks them to help. (Photo courtesy of ICD‑LAB)

Another weak robot is called Talking-Bones. Although it's designed to tell stories, it sometimes loses track and forgets where it was. It starts telling old tales that every child in Japan knows, then asks "um, what happens next?" Naturally, the kids listening to the story want to jump in and tell it the next part. This way, the children and the robot help each other out, and the story becomes more enjoyable.

Talking-Bones, a robot that forgets stories halfway through. It makes people want to listen closely and help the robot get to the end. (Photo courtesy of ICD‑LAB)

But why develop such imperfect robots? Okada Michio, head of the ICD‑LAB, had this to say:
"Robots are often expected to be perfect, but no robot is perfect. By emphasizing some of their imperfections and weaknesses, we can bring out the strengths and kindness of others. This builds a sense of shared accomplishment and connection, which we believe helps develop people's relationships with each other, not just with robots."

Robots That Brighten Up Your Everyday Life

There's now a growing demand for robots that aren't designed to make life easier or help you out with household chores — they simply make you feel better by being around. These robots come in various forms, including a robot that emits warmth so you can feel its body heat. The purpose of this robot is simply "to be loved by you" and treated like a member of the family, from changing its clothes to putting it to bed, a bit like taking care of a baby.

This robot warms up to a child's body temperature of 37-39°C, so you can feel its warmth when you touch it. (Photo courtesy of GROOVE X)

Another robot even lets you experience what it's like to be nibbled by a puppy. At first glance, this robot looks like an ordinary stuffed animal, but its unique technology changes the way it bites each time, sometimes biting hard and other times barely biting at all.

This robot was developed to recreate the comforting feel of being nibbled by a puppy. (Photo courtesy of Yukai Engineering Inc.)

Another robot jointly developed by ICD-LAB was created to help people relax in their homes. It uses facial and voice recognition technology to hold fun conversations with people, and is humorously cute, sometimes talking in its sleep or even farting! You can chat to it in your living room, cuddle it in your bedroom, and treat it like a lovable roommate who's always fun to be around.

This cute and round robot was developed in collaboration with ICD-LAB. (Photo courtesy of Panasonic)

Some Japanese robots are so adorable, you'll want to be around them all the time. They spread feel-good vibes and make daily life more fun, so you might even think of them like family or friends. After all, it's said that in future societies, humans and robots will live closely together — so being friends with robots might soon become the norm!