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As Japan's Population Shrinks, Robot Babies Are Gaining Popularity

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The 2015 Japanese census laid out a frightening realization for the country: its population is shrinking. In just five years, between 2010 and 2015, Japan's population shrunk by almost 1 million—an unusually high drop for a country not dealing with a disaster like famine or plague. But while everyone is quick to blame so-called "parasite singles" or a lack of immigration, Toyota is looking for a solution. Their recent proposal? Robots.

In October, the car manufacturer introduced the Kirobo Mini, a robot designed to form an emotional connection with a population that is getting older and not reproducing at a rate to sustain population numbers. This is actually a miniaturized version of the original Kirobo robot, which was slightly larger and sent to the International Space Station to keep astronauts company during long voyages (it was also the first-ever talking robot in space).

"He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn't fully developed the skills to balance itself," Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini's chief design engineer, said. "This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection."

In addition to all that wobbling, the Kirobo Mini will blink its "eyes," mimic the high-pitched type of baby talk familiar to new parents, and recognize facial expressions through the use of a built-in camera. It's small enough to sit inside a cradle that snaps into a vehicle's cup holder, but powerful enough to simulate the intelligence of a 5-year-old.

Toyota didn't come right out and say it, but the belief among many is that these companion babies are designed to tap into the parental instincts of Kirobo owners, possibly leading them to want a real child of their own.

This strategy is similar to the one used by the team behind Yotaro, another robot baby introduced in Japan in 2010. This one used projection technology to put an emotive face on the robot, promoting a bond with its owners (and hopefully leading to some flesh-and-blood babies in the future).

"A robot can't be human but it's great if this robot triggers human emotions, so humans want to have their own baby," Hiroki Kunimura, the project leader for the Yotaro robot, told CNN at the time.

Each Kirobo Mini will retail for 39,800 yen, or $390, when it is released next year.

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The Simple Optical Illusion That Makes an Image Look Like It's Drawing Itself
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iStock

Artist James Nolan Gandy invents robot arms that sketch intricate mathematical shapes with pen and paper. When viewed in real time, the effect is impressive. But it becomes even more so when the videos are sped up in a timelapse. If you look closely in the video below, the illustration appears to materialize faster than the robot can put the design to paper. Gizmodo recently explained how the illusion works to make it look like parts of the sketch are forming before the machine has time to draw them.

The optical illusion isn’t an example of tricky image editing: It’s the result of something called the wagon wheel effect. You can observe this in a car wheel accelerating down the highway or in propeller blades lifting up a helicopter. If an object makes enough rotations per second, it can appear to slow down, move backwards, or even stand still.

This is especially apparent on film. Every “moving image” we see on a screen is an illusion caused by the brain filling in the gaps between a sequence of still images. In the case of the timelapse video below, the camera captured the right amount of images, in the right order, to depict the pen as moving more slowly than it did in real life. But unlike the pen, the drawing formed throughout the video isn't subject to the wagon-wheel effect, so it still appears to move at full speed. This difference makes it look like the sketch is drawing itself, no pen required.

Gandy frequently shares behind-the-scenes videos of his mechanical art on his Instagram page. You can check out some of his non-timelapse clips like the one below to better understand how his machines work, then visit his website to browse and purchase the art made by his 'bots.

And if you think his stuff is impressive, make sure to explore some of the incredible art robots have made in the past.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab, YouTube
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The Next Job Being Taken Over by Robots? TV News Anchor
Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab, YouTube
Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab, YouTube

The robots will come for all of our jobs one day, whether you’re a factory worker or a surgeon. In Japan, that reality now seems to be coming for television news anchors. According to Live Science and The Wall Street Journal, a humanoid robot named Erica is on the cusp of her debut on TV news.

Erica, who was originally built to work as a receptionist, was created at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory and has been called the “the most life-like (and creepiest) robot ever built.” Right now, it seems her career will reach far beyond working a reception desk. Osaka University's Hiroshi Ishiguro, who calls himself the robot’s “father,” told The Wall Street Journal that she will make her television debut sometime in 2018, with the paper saying it will likely happen in April.

Designed to look like a 23-year-old woman, she has shockingly realistic-looking skin and facial expressions. Her speech, tinged with an English accent, is a little stilted, but her responses to questions largely sound pretty natural. She can also tell jokes that are just as groan-worthy as the ones that fly back and forth during the banter between news anchors.

She can’t walk around the room by herself, but she can sit behind a desk and move her neck, shoulders, and waist autonomously. She has depth sensors to help her sense where people are standing in a room and can recognize which direction sound is coming from, turning to face someone speaking to her. She’s also equipped with face-recognition technology.

Considering that The Washington Post already has a robot news reporter that writes stories and tweets, getting a robot to recite a script in front of a camera seems fairly easy. All she has to do is sit there and read the news. But Erica’s lifelike demeanor may make her a more capable on-air personality than we can imagine right now. It might not be long before she wins her first broadcast journalism award.

[h/t Live Science]

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