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Japan to send ‘creepy’ talking robot into space with astronauts

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Talking robots in space have a bad track record – just watch 2001: A Space Odyssey. So good luck to his fellow astronauts on the International Space Station

This August, a consortium of Japanese scientists, engineers and advertising bigwigs will send a talking robot into space. The robot will be named Kirobo, and its mission will be to communicate directly with astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

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The moral of this, clearly, is that Japanese consortiums need to watch more films. Rule No1 of almost every science-fiction film ever made is that you should never put a talking robot in space. Never. 2001: A Space Odysseyput a talking robot in space, and it ended up trying to kill everyone. Alien put a talking robot in space, and it ended up freaking out and puking milk everywhere. Star Wars put a talking robot in space, and it just stood around talking to a dustbin all day. Putting a talking robot in space is a very bad idea, especially if – as is the case with Kirobo – the robot looks like a sinister little Chucky doll.

But, as overwhelmingly creepy as Kirobo obviously is, at least his existence represents progress. If this had happened 15 years ago, the astronauts onboard would have been sent a Tamagotchi for company, and then they would have had to live with the inevitable guilt of killing it after forgetting to pat it on the head every 15 minutes. Ten years ago, they would have been sent a Sony AIBO robot dog, which would have just wandered around being all expensive and useless. And at least this was a Japanese idea. God knows what Britain would have sent up. A Mr Potato Head, probably.

Now, though, the residents of the ISS will have Kirobo for company, a robot that can learn through its communication with humans, possibly ushering in a new golden age of human-robot interaction. We’re already becoming increasingly reliant on robots in warfare and as the global population ages it is expected that robots will play a bigger and bigger part in healthcare, from robot pets that aid dementia patients to full-on robot nurses. Using robots for communication and companionship might easily be the next step. If the Kirobo experiment turns out to be a success, we might be closer than ever to seeing a real-life Johnny 5, or a robot police officer as seen in Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. from Friends (a thought further explored in JJ Abrams’ upcoming sci-fi show, Almost Human, which partners a human cop (Karl Urban) with a life-like android with feelings (Michael Ealy). At the very least, we’re all surely destined to have Rocky IV-style robot butlers before too long.

So maybe, on reflection, Kirobo is a good thing. Sure, he might go haywire, invent Skynet and doom humanity to an eternity of miserable slavery, but at least he’ll be doing it 200 miles or so above the Earth. To the astronauts who will have to spend the next few months alone in a claustrophobic tin with Kirobo, and Kirobo’s unblinking eyes, and Kirobo’s grasping little hands, and Kirobo’s creepy little red lips, thanks for taking this one for the team.

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© Guardian News and Media 2013

Watch this video of Kirobo’s first zero-gravity test, posted to YouTube on Feb. 28, 2013.

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