Toyota's New Robot Makes Life Easier, Lacks Cuteness

Does the Human Support Robot points to the future of human-machine interaction?

In a quiet room overlooking the Japanese countryside, a man fumbles with his bottle of pills. The bottle flies from his shaking hands, hitting the tiled floor and rolling to rest under a chair in the corner of the room. Bedridden and alone, the man takes a deep breath, then reaches to his side to tap a few instructions on a digital tablet. The tablet is attached to Toyota’s new robot, which rolls almost silently toward the chair, extending its one mechanical arm to retrieve the pills and save the day. Then, when the old man is distracted, lured into a false sense of security, the robot draws the curtains and summons its robotic overlords to begin the revolution.

Okay, so it probably won’t play out that way, but you have to admit — it’s hard for your mind not to wander into I, Robot territory when you first glimpse Toyota’s new robot.

The HSR, or Human Support Robot, was created to help those with physical disabilities accomplish everyday tasks like picking up dropped objects, fetching items from shelves and even opening and shutting curtains. And although its unsettling exterior might not capture the hearts of a nation, its capabilities could have a big impact on the lives of disabled people everywhere. Toyota’s original press release was published in Japanese, but luckily Gizmag translated some of the finer points and explained the features that make the robot so exciting:

Technical specs are still a bit unclear, but the robot weighs 70 lbs and is capable of holding objects that weigh up to 2.6 lbs with its simple two-fingered gripper. Designed for use indoors, the robot travels at a max speed of 1.8 miles per hour. It can overcome bumps in the floor up to 0.3 inches (enough to traverse from hardwood to carpet) and can climb slopes up to 5 degrees. Although not specifically mentioned in the press release the robot appears to have both a Prosense (Microsoft Kinect) sensor and stereo cameras in its head, which would allow it to sense depth and visually identify people and objects.

Toyota has been testing the HSR with the cooperation of the Yokohama Rehabilitation Center since 2011, with patients providing feedback on the robot’s design. The company will be demonstrating the robot to the public from 26- 28 September at Tokyo Big Sight as part of the “bleeding edge development of health care equipment” project. No word on the expected price of the robot (or its battery life), but given that Japanese public health insurance will cover 90% of associated costs (a law designed specifically for robot technology that was passed recently), it seems HSR will have a decent shot at becoming a real consumer product, though it may take another couple of years of development.

Toyota helper robotIt’s clear that the HSR could be of great use to the elderly and disabled, but we have to ask — does it have to look so creepy? Take for example, this press photo Toyota released of the robot helping its owner by drawing the blinds. The action itself is completely helpful, completely functional, and one that could be of great assistance to those with mobility issues. But one look at its menacing posture and tablet face and we can’t help but envision the robotic helper has less than altruistic aims.

“Please, I just want to see the sunlight today,” we imagine a man pleading from his hospital bed. “Not until you’ve finished your manuscript,” replies the Annie Wilkes of Japanese robots.

Don’t get us wrong — we are nothing but supportive of using robotics to improve quality of life. In fact, at the Spark Network we’ve even funded projects with that exact aim. Spark-funded project Character Therapy puts robotics to use in assisting autistic children with behavioral therapy. The project’s robot, named Popchilla, also works in conjunction with tablets and apps to create a fun an accessible tech tool for autistic children and their caregivers. But unlike the droid-like HSR, Popchilla is covered in fuzzy blue fur. It also has a cute, smiling face. Children who meet Popchilla immediately want to interact with him, not run from him.

Popchilla’s “cute factor” is more important than you might think. The robot is designed to help autistic children, and since many of these children experience challenges with socialization and communication, Popchilla’s approachability is central to its success. “Some autistic children are more willing to interact with robotic devices than humans,” Interbots Chief Technical Officer Michael Knight told Co.EXIST. “We want to use Popchilla to help those children with their social skills and interacting with real people.” Giving the robot a friendly face goes a long way towards helping autistic children connect to, and benefit from, its behavioral therapy features.

Rescuing the HSR from the Uncanny Valley

Though the target consumer of Toyota’s HSR is an adult with mobility issues, not a child on the autism spectrum, we think owners of the robot could still benefit from a friendly face. Of course, with the HSR already supporting a robotic arm and a tablet face, efforts to give the device a makeover could result in first-class ticket to the uncanny valley. What exactly is the uncanny valley? We’ll let Popular Mechanics explain:

It is one of the most poetic, ingenious terms in all of robotics: the uncanny valley. Even without any explanation, it’s evocative. Dive deeper into the theory, and it gets better. In a 1970 paper in the journal Energy, roboticist Masahiro Mori proposed that a robot that’s too human-like can veer into unsettling territory, tripping the same psychological alarms associated with a dead or unhealthy human. “This,” writes Mori, “is the Uncanny Valley.” Visualized as a curve, our sense of familiarity theoretically tracks upward as we encounter increasingly human-like machines. The steep, uncanny drop-off that marks the point of too human-like becomes a valley when you include the subsequent steep rise associated with a real human being, or perfect android. Those robots unlucky enough to topple into the valley are victims of our intimate, hard-wired perception of human biology and social cues.

Character TherapyIn other words, if the HSR were to take on more human characteristics, it might accomplish the seemingly impossible — it might become even creepier than it already is. Our solution? We think  Toyota’s new robot could take a page from Popchilla. Add a little faux-fur, some antenna and a smile and the HSR might just move from creepy to cuddly. It wouldn’t become human — it’d become alien, and just like Popchilla it’d be warm and approachable instead of cold and unsettling. With the help of Interbots’ designers, the HSR could stop looking like an evil cyborg quietly plotting the demise of the human race and start looking a lot more like what it actually is — an innovative new robot that could improve lives across the globe.

What do you think? Would you welcome Toyota’s new robot into your home? Do you think robotics engineers should put more effort into ensuring robots designed for behavioral and occupational therapy look a little less menacing? Are you reading this blog entry from your homemade cement bunker where you plan to one day wait out the bloody robotic revolution? Tell us about it by commenting here or sharing your thoughts on our Facebook or Twitter.

Published October 01, 2012