This man wants to be the Steve Jobs of robotics and here’s why he thinks you need a robot in your life

By Todd Neff

Take a close look at your smartphone for a moment.

Unless you’re among the rare Blackberry holdovers or a true clamshell-toting troglodyte, it’s a slab of glass and plastic and/or metal, a plug or two, a couple of camera apertures and a couple of buttons. From the perspectives of design and user interface, your phone is basically the same thing it was years ago.

Considering the gigantic scale of smartphone business, the tight product cycles and the hordes of creative people and engineers working to make the latest and greatest, conventional wisdom says there’s nowhere else to go with smartphone, design-wise. Tomotaka Takahashi would beg to differ.

Takahashi, 41, cut his teeth not in the electronics industry or the telecommunications business, but as an academic roboticist. Now an associate professor with Tokyo University, he also runs his own shop, Robo Garage, in which he builds, you guessed it, robots. Not just any robots. His specialty — or better, his genius — is in combining the skills of a renaissance sculptor, a Pixar animator, a high-end electrical engineer and a code poet to create what amount to lifelike, highly charismatic, indisputably cute and surprisingly functional robots. His aim, he says, is always the same: “to create the ideal robot.”

“My dream is to become the Steve Jobs of robotics,” he told the BBC. “He invented a whole lifestyle via his gadgets. And I have the same objective — I want everyone to use communication robots in their daily life.”

He starts not with computer aided design (CAD) software, but with wood, which he hand carves, then uses to make the molds for the plastic that will make up the robot’s body. Doing so yields more attractive, efficient designs, he says. Then he pieces together the motors, the electronics and wires, does the painting, the assembly, and, finally, the programming. His robots uncannily convey life.

See for yourself. Check out Ropid (robot plus rapid), which he designed to prototype quick, natural movements. Or Kirobo, pint-sized robot which, following its stint on the International Space Station, earned two Guinness Book of World Records in 2013: one for being the first companion robot in space and a second for highest altitude for a robot to have a conversation. Takahashi tested it in a “vomit comet” aircraft to simulate weightlessness, even.

Which brings us back to smartphones. Most of us saw the end of the road as far as design. Takahashi recognized something else entirely.

“People don’t want to talk to a square box: we want to talk to something with life. We talk to animals, insects, teddy bears — and we can also talk to robots,” he told the BBC in May 2014. “That’s why we need human forms for the next generation of smartphones — a kind of Tinkerbell or Jiminy Cricket, providing information, support and advice.”

He was already working on it. He thought it would take five years. It ended up being less than two. In April 2016, Sharp introduced RoBoHon. It’s a 19 centimeter-tall robot that’s also a phone (3G and LTE compatible) combined with an Amazon Echo/Google Home-style personal assistant — though one whose 13 servomotors let it sit, stand, walk, dance, do push-ups, whatever (firmware updates include new physical feats, among other things). Its eyes change color — pink, green, blue — depending on its emotions. It recognizes when you come home, if you don’t happen to bring it with you everywhere you go, for which there’s an optional leather carrying case that dangles your robot-phone on your chest. It has a built-in camera that can learn to recognize you as well as a high-definition laser projector that beams photos, maps and more straight out of RoBoHon’s forehead onto walls or screens, real or makeshift. It’s available for sale only in Japan, for about $1,860. The English homepage includes a poem:

It’s small. It’s a robot!

Talk to it, make a call, check email.

Take photos, do other things too.

Little by little it learns.

Take it with you on the go.

The more it gets to know you,

The more attached you become to RoBoHon.

Robohon: the new generation of cell phones?

Steve Jobs wouldn’t probably have used such words, but he wouldn’t have argued with Takahashi’s premise, either: that people don’t like talking to slabs or cylinders as much as they like talking to other people or dogs or objects engineered in theirs or Jiminy Cricket’s likenesses. And who’s to say that the man who pioneered the ubiquitous techno-slab wouldn’t have ultimately disrupted the smartphone status quo with something at least a bit like RoBoHon.

Tomotaka Takahashi is one of 40 speakers slated for Brain Bar Budapest 2017. He’s part of a stellar lineup of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap to share insights with the more than 7,000 people attending this year’s festival. Discount tickets are available here.

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