Takayuki Kanda really doesn't like to walk alone.
The research scientist from ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories in Kyoto finds the experience so boring that he'd rather drive - even though he lives close to his lab and knows that walking is healthy.
"I enjoy walking with someone, like with my wife, with my daughter," Kanda said. "But they are not always available."
So Kanda, who specializes in human-like bots, developed a robotic walking partner that could make smalltalk based on its surroundings, which, he hopes, might motivate walking-adverse people like himself to get out and exercise more.
The bot rests on a person's shoulder like a boxy gray parrot. It weighs in at about a pound and a half and sits roughly 8.5 inches high, 3.5 inches wide, and 10 inches long. A microphone, speaker, and internal camera allow the bot to communicate. It's even equipped with a smile.
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Kanda and his team collected video from five different locations, including a garden and a shopping mall, and created a dataset of smalltalk topics related to each location.
Then they programmed the robot to associate visual cues with specific topics. Speech software called Open JTalk provided the robot with a voice. Near a group of parked cars, for example, it might say, "In a big parking lot, sometimes I forget where I parked."
They tested the robot on 15 Japanese people, 10 males and five females, who were paid and averaged about 26 years old.
"Have you ever blown a puff of dandelion seeds into the air," the robot asked a participant, according to research presented recently by Kanda's team.
A study participant smiled and responded, "Yes, I often did that when I was a child."
Although several participants noted the robot's weight, Kanda said he was surprised that no one commented that the experience was strange or funny.
"I guess people enjoy new technologies," he said.
Just like a human buddy, Kanda's bot isn't perfect. It's not able to go for walks in heavy rain and, while the robot can make utterances, it can't really hold a conversation. Kanda said he would like to boost the robot's conversational skills and conduct tests with people who are reluctant to walk.
Despite its limits, Kanda was moved by the bot's presence.
"I felt a kind of sense of being with someone," he said, "particularly when it spoke."
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