Hello from space! Kirobo takes huge step for robotics

Japanese robot speaks its first words onboard the space station

A small robot says, "Good morning," and with that one phrase, takes a huge step forward in robot-human cooperation in space, as well as robotic companions.

Kirobo, a 13.4-in. tall, 2.2-pound humanoid robot, spoke its first words in space, while floating onboard the International Space Station last month. A newly released YouTube video shows the Japanese-built robot talking, in Japanese, in space.

"Good morning to everyone on Earth. This is Kirobo. I am the world's first talking robot astronaut. Nice to meet you," the robot said on Aug. 21. "A robot took one small step toward a brighter future for all."

The humanoid robot arrived at the space station last month aboard a Kounotori 4 cargo spacecraft that lifted off from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center.

Kirobo is awaiting Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is scheduled to arrive on the space station in November to take part in a human-robotics experiment.

Wakata and the robot are expected to take part in what will be the first experiment on conversation in space between a human and a robot. While the experiment could go a long way to helping astronauts feel less disconnected while working in space, it also could further efforts to have astronauts and robots work together.

The effort also could speed the development of small companion robots that people could carry in their pockets like smartphones.

"This could be huge for robotics and for space research," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "Long term, I think the plan is to have robots co-exist with humans for long voyages so this would be a good proof point for that."

Whether orbiting Earth or in deep space, having a companion to talk with, even a robotic companion, could be essential.

"I would think a connection with anything, including a robot, is better than no connection," said Kerravala. "I imagine, over time, these will look more and more humanoid. Maybe not to the level of Data in Star Trek, but certainly they'll be able to act as part of a space team."

Wakata, a Japanese engineer and a veteran of four NASA space shuttle missions and a long-duration stay on the space station, is scheduled to launch onboard the Soyuz TMA-11M in November. During his mission, he will become Japan's first station commander.

Kirobo, which can move its head and arms, stand up and balance on one leg, is expected to help keep Wakata company, having conversations with him and possibly relaying information to him from the control room or ground engineers.

In an interview with the Agence-France Press news service, a French-based news agency, Kirobo's creator, Tomotaka Takahashi, a roboticist and a leader in the Kirobo project, said he wanted to create a tiny robot that users could carry in their pocket like a smartphone.

"By bringing a robot into space, the development of a symbiotic robot is expected to move along much faster," Takahashi said.

Though Kirobo is the first robot to talk on the space station, it is not the first robot to "live" and work there.

The space station, which uses several robotic arms to lift bulky cargo and maneuver equipment and spacewalking astronauts (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9141196/NASA_Astronaut_rides_robotic_arm_in_successful_spacewalk ) outside the station, also is home to Robonaut 2 , which also is known as R2.

Robonaut 2 is a 300-pound robot designed to use its arms and hands to manipulate tools and to perform cleaning and maintenance jobs on the space station. The humanoid robot, which arrived on the space station in 2011, is expected to one day work outside the orbiter so astronauts won't have to make as many dangerous spacewalks.

This article, Hello from space! Kirobo takes huge step for robotics, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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