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Can baby 'bot help Japan reproduce?

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Can baby robot help Japan reproduce?
  • Japanese university creates robot baby
  • Initial purpose to create a robot to appeal across national and cultural lines
  • Public took to baby 'bot; researchers saw it could be aid to help with low birth rate
  • Estimates show 40 percent of Japan's population will be over age 65 by 2050

  • Robotics
  • Japan
  • Technology

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Yotaro cries, giggles, and kicks when you tickle him. He sneezes and his nose runs. When he is upset, his rattle calms him down.

An average baby -- sort of -- since Yotaro is a robot. His inventors hope he will help Japan's sagging birth rate, among the lowest in the world.

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

Kunimura and his University of Tsukuba team originally built Yotaro because they wanted to create a robot that would appeal across national and cultural lines. Since a baby doesn't have any language skills yet, they chose to build a robotic infant.

The University of Tsukuba students then started showing off Yotaro at robot competitions, and were surprised by the reactions from the public and the media.

"People asked us if this baby robot was created to tackle the low birth rate in Japan," said Kunimura, who describes himself as Yotaro's "daddy."

The low birth rate wasn't the initial concept, but when Kunimura started seeing how the public touched and reacted to Yotaro, he saw the possibility of a robotic solution to a social crisis.

Yotaro, in Japan's high-tech robotics world, is extraordinarily low-tech. The emotions are pre-set in a computer program and shot onto his eerily large head with a projector. Yotaro's warm body temperature is silicone warmed by water. His endlessly runny nose is a water hose on a slow drip. But the effect Yotaro has on people, said his inventors, is stunningly human.

"I think it's true that young working couples have no chance to have personal contact with babies in their lives. The people who came to the robot exhibitions enjoyed touching Yotaro, like a real baby," said Kunimura.

Japan is struggling to find a solution to a pressing population problem. The country, with one of the world's highest life expectancies, expects that 40 percent of its population will be over the age of 65 by 2050. Add in the nation's low birth rate, and Japan's social problem is clear: The country's population is graying and dwindling every year.

Japan's lawmakers instituted a radical plan hoping to take on the population crisis. The record budget this year included a provision to pay families 13,000 yen, approximately US $150, per month, per child. The child care subsidy would continue until the child reaches high school.

The hope is that a financial incentive would encourage families to have more children. Lawmakers, though, are already talking about cutting back the program in the wake of Japan's massive public debt.

Yotaro project members think a mindset change on children in Japan won't come from money, but some contact with a baby -- even a robotic one. Project member Madoka Hirai said she started noticing baby clothes and pictured what life with a child could be like -- something she had never thought about before Yotaro.

"(He) changed how I feel about babies," she said.