(this article first appeared in the september 19, 2005 issue of newsweek international)
Are you lonely? do you have trouble getting up on time? If you live in Japan, help is on the way. Starting this week, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will begin taking orders for Wakamaru, the world's first communicative home-use robot. Those willing to shell out $14,300 will get a one-meter-tall bright yellow companion who will follow them around, keep them on schedule, chatter idly and even worry if they get stuck in traffic.
Life with Wakamaru will be a lot like having a precocious child who likes to house-sit and never throws tantrums. In the morning, the robot will come to your bed to wake you at a preprogrammed hour. While you dress, he'll recite the day's headlines and advise if you should take an umbrella. He moves about smoothly on a wheeled pedestal, and will even see you off at the door.
Wakamaru's oversize round eyes and childlike gestures are what first attract people, says Junji Suzuki, a Mitsubishi Heavy manager. The robot can recognize up to 10,000 words -- and respond with phrases from "I love you" to "The typhoon season is here!" When he can't make sense of what you say, he beeps faintly and inclines his head. The way he looks up at you "just melts you," says Suzuki.
The robot goes wherever you go, following sound and movement. When you are relaxing on the sofa, he'll come over and start talking nonsense -- just like a real kid. But he's less self-absorbed than most children; Wakamaru panics if you don't get home by the promised time, and will send a message to your mobile. If you fail to respond, he'll start contacting your family and friends. Wakamaru can also remember 10 faces and emits a warning when an unfamiliar figure enters.
Mitsubishi Heavy will ship just 100 units by the year-end, and depending on the response -- which we predict will be enthusiastic -- it will decide how much to expand production in 2006.
Wakamaru will soon have some robotic friends, or rivals. Several Japanese high-tech giants, including Mitsubishi Heavy, Sony and Fujitsu, formed a consortium last year to develop domestic robots. Now, if only they could make one that does the laundry.
(c) 2005 newsweek, inc.