The daring offspring of Japan’s Kibo Robot Project was launched into space on Sunday aboard a cargo ship. The rocket is already in orbit with five tons of supplies, and its little passenger is expected to step on board the ISS on Friday. The 34 centimeter (13 inch) android got his name from “kibo” – Japanese for “hope.” Weighing in at just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), it was jointly designed by the University of Tokyo, Toyota Motor Corp and Dentsu Inc. to operate even in zero gravity. The most amazing feature of Kirobo is its sophisticated voice-recognition, face-recognition and communication technology, which enables it to engage in a meaningful conversation with a human being. The project designers also take pride in the robot’s ability to learn new terms and concepts. So far, Kirobo is said to be able to speak Japanese, and so its main conversation partner will be astronaut Koichi Wakata. Japan’s veteran astronaut, Wakata is scheduled to arrive for his second ISS mission in November, and will take command of the orbital research base next March. Kirobo will “remember Mr Wakata’s face so it can recognize him when they reunite in space,” developer Tomotaka Takahashi says. It is hoped that the android will provide emotional support to the astronaut. According to the project’s website, the ultimate mission of the robotic astronaut is “to help solve the problems brought about by a society that has become more individualized and less communicative.” The Japanese scientists believe that such a conversation partner represents a “hope” for people living in isolation, and could serve as “a mediator between person and machine, or person and internet and sometimes even between people.” But it is also said to be an ambitious step towards a future of mankind that has been described in science-fiction books. “I want to help create a world where humans and robots can live together and get along,” Kirobo told reporters when the project was unveiled in late June. On its return from orbit – where the talking android will stay until late 2014 – Kirobo is going to talk about his adventures with a twin robot, Mirata.
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