Japan may send chatty humanoid tweet-bot to space

Feb 17, 2011 By ERIC TALMADGE , Associated Press
In this May 7, 2009 file photo, Kudan Elementary School children touch a cheek of Japan's robot teacher Saya following a special class by the robot that can express six basic emotions, developed by Tokyo University of Science Professor Hiroshi Kobayashi, in Tokyo. Japan's space agency JAXA announced Monday, Feb. 14, 2011, that it is considering putting a talking humanoid robot on the International Space Station in 2013 to watch the mission while astronauts are asleep, monitor their health and stress levels and communicate to Earth through the microblogging site Twitter. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, FILE)

(AP) -- Lonely astronauts on the International Space Station may soon be getting an android friend from Japan. And for the folks back home, it will tweet.

Japan's space agency is considering putting a talking humanoid robot on the to watch the mission while astronauts are asleep, monitor their health and stress levels and communicate to Earth through the microblogging site Twitter.

Japan's space agency announced this week that it is looking at a plan to send a to the space station in 2013 that could communicate with the ground through Twitter - primarily feeding photos, rather than original ideas - and provide astronauts with "comfort and companionship."

Following up on NASA's "Robonaut" R-2 program, which is set for launch on the Discovery shuttle next week, the Japanese android would be part of a larger effort to create and refine robots that can be used by the elderly, JAXA said in a statement.

Japan is one of the leading countries in robotics, and has a rapidly aging society with one of the world's longest life-expectancies.

Improving robot communication capabilities could help the elderly on Earth by providing a nonintrusive means of monitoring the robot owner's health and vital signs and sending information to emergency responders if there is an abnormality, JAXA said.

"We are thinking in terms of a very human-like robot that would have facial expressions and be able to converse with the astronauts," said JAXA's Satoshi Sano.

The robot was being developed with the advertising and communications giant Dentsu Inc. and a team at Tokyo University.

The NASA project has human-like head, hands and arms and uses the same tools as station crew members. The "" called R-2 - a shout-out to R2-D2 of "Star Wars" fame - is intended to carry out maintenance tasks in the station's Destiny lab.

NASA says it hopes that humanoid robots could one day stand in for astronauts during spacewalks or perform tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. For now, the US$2.5 million NASA robot exists only from the waist up and is limited to activities within the lab.

The robot also uses Twitter, but generally just messages relayed from NASA spokespeople. Sano said the agency is considering ways to program the Japanese version to be more original.

More importantly, he said, the Japanese project is intended to build on the R-2 idea by providing a more communicative companion for the astronauts themselves.

Japan has no manned space program of its own, but its astronauts have been part of the space station crew and Japan also maintains a laboratory, called "Kibo," or Hope, on the station.

Sano said that JAXA hopes the robot's communications with Earth while there are no Japanese passengers on the space station will help maintain public interest and support in the mission.

He said the first Japanese astronaut to tweet from space was Soichi Noguchi, who returned to Earth in June last year after several months aboard the ISS.

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User comments : 6

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1 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2011
Another monumental waste of.money......or secret agenda.
not rated yet Feb 17, 2011
Wow. Another pointless publicity stunt by a modern government.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2011
Holy shit, micheal jackson is still alive.
not rated yet Feb 17, 2011
Seems a little dumb, but I imagine it can get quite tense up there with the same people in such a tight space. A little talking robot spouting messages from back home could take the edge off the astronauts in their free time.

Besides that, Japan has announced intentions to put a robot base on the moon by 2020. This could be some space robotics practice.
not rated yet Feb 17, 2011
They should consider a larger bust and an anatomically accurate version ~ (male) astronauts can get mighty lonely up there...
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2011
Like it or not: The Japanese are into motivating their youth to become scienists, engineers, ...
If you can make science fun for small kids they will pursue that career from early on.

Think of how the Apollo moon landings motivated an entire generation to become engineers or astronauts. Were they 'fiscally responsible'? Did these landings have any immediate material/monetary benefit? No. Yet the beneficial fallout was immense. (Conversely you can currently see what happens if you DONT motivate people by providing heady visions)

Then again: What seems cool to Japanese has always seemed very weird to us (and I suspect this is true from their point of view, too)

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