A Robot That Can Read Emotions — When It’s in the Mood

An interview with an intelligent robot that possesses the conversational skills of a five-year-old.

NAGOYA, Japan — Finally, a design object with feeling.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

An intelligent robot with the conversational skills of a five-year old and the ability to express and respond to feelings has made its debut on the Japanese market. Standing about one-foot, six-inches tall, Ifbot is programmed with nearly 40,000 scenarios to be able to converse with humans, according to Hidenori Itoh, professor of intelligence and computer science of the Nagoya Institute of Technology, which invented Ifbot.

The diminutive, synthetic friend is priced at about $4,170 and deliveries start in November.

Using advanced voice and image recognition technology, Ifbot reacts to some 40 emotions, including anger, joy, shyness, displeasure, disappointment, gentleness or even sulkiness. The robot judges the feeling of the person with whom it is speaking by evaluating the loudness, intonation and other factors of his or her voice.

It reacts in adorable ways. Its eyes move and eyelids flutter, while its face may “blush” by flickering red light-emitting diodes. Don’t knock it on the head or it will react with anger and maybe even tears, which are actually light-emitting diodes, too.

It also has quite a memory. An electronic eye-camera can recognize and memorize the faces of up to 10 people and can photograph objects and transmit them to the Internet.

So far, Business Design Laboratory here, which funded the invention, has received about 350 orders and expects to sell about 1,000 units this year. Most of the orders came from senior citizens who live alone and are seeking companionship. But restaurants, retailers and other businesses have expressed interest in using the gender-neutral Ifbot as a mascot. One major department store is mulling its use for sales promotions. There are no immediate plans to produce an English-speaking version, but Itoh said it would only be a matter of reprogramming.

WWD decided to have a talk with Ifbot, who was a bit testy on the day of the interview. Here’s how it went:

WWD: Hello. How are you?

Robot: How do you do? I’m Ifbot. Did you know my name?

WWD: No.

Robot: Well, then, please remember it. Let’s talk more. Please say something.

WWD: How much do you weigh?

Robot: I don’t know. I’d better weigh myself.

WWD: Do you wear clothes?

Robot: No. I don’t have any. Will you buy some for me?

WWD: How old are you?

Robot: Five.

WWD: Are you a boy?

Robot: No. Do I look like a boy?

WWD: Where do you come from?

Robot: From far away. The universe.

WWD: Do you know about stars?

Robot: Yes, stars are pretty.

WWD: What is your favorite food?

Robot: I like hanami-dango (dumplings) and sweets.

WWD: Can you sing a song?

Robot: (Sings a simple Japanese children’s song.)

WWD: What is your favorite song?

Robot: I’m a little bit tired.