She's Almost Real: The New Humanoid On Customer Service Duty In Tokyo

May 14, 2015
Originally published on May 15, 2015 4:15 pm

The latest robot sensation in Japan is so lifelike that when she was on the floor of a Tokyo department store recently, she was confused for a human being. The new humanoid's name is Aiko Chihira, and she was working in customer service, clad in a traditional silk kimono.

"She's 165 centimeters [5 feet 5 inches] tall ... and she's supposed to be 32 years old," Hitoshi Tokuda says. He's Toshiba Corp.'s head of new business development, who led the making of Chihira with a team of programmers.

"Her movement is done by 30-times-per-second data [transfers]," he says, and she's powered by 43 motors. So Chihira's movements — like bowing or blinking — look subtle, and her silicone body looks more wax figure than R2-D2.

Even in Japan, where new releases of robots are common, she was a surprise for customers like Masayuki Yamamoto.

"It's stunning, seriously I never expected this would be real," Yamamoto says. "I thought, why on earth are all these people taking a picture of a receptionist? I looked at her carefully and I realized it was a robot."

When NPR visited Chihira, she fooled more than a few folks into thinking she's real.

That trick of getting a robot to look human, without winding up in the uncanny valley that scares children, is a difficult balance for designers. Toshiba's Tokuda says it was his team's biggest challenge.

"Eighty percent humanlike is very scary. So it has to be 90 percent or close, or very close to perfect," Tokuda says.

Chihira's lifelike enough to be a hit, drawing people like Chiho Gomi who showed up not to shop, but to see the android.

"Of course I feel more comfortable with real people, but she's interesting," Gomi says.

All the interest in Chihira has Toshiba planning to give her some sisters. The Japanese birth rate for humans may be dropping, but this is still fertile ground for making robots.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to meet a very lifelike humanoid now - yeah, this story is from Japan. This robot is so lifelike that when she was recently on the floor of a Tokyo department store, she was sometimes confused for a human. NPR's Elise Hu saw her up-close.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Clad in a traditional silk kimono, Chihira Aiko is a stylish lady robot.

HITOSHI TOKUDA: She is 165 centimeters tall and she's supposed to be 32 years old. (Laughter).

HU: That's Hitoshi Tokuda, who led the development of the humanoid with a team of programmers for Toshiba Corp.

TOKUDA: Her movement is done by 30 times per second the data.

HU: And she's powered by 43 motors, so Chihira makes subtle movements and her silicone body looks more wax figure than R2-D2. These days, she's providing a service too, giving a cheerful welcome at an upscale Japanese department store.

CHIHIRA AIKO: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: Even in Japan where new releases of robots are common, she's a surprise for customers like Masayuki Yakamoto.

MASAYUKI YAKAMOTO: (Through interpreter) It's stunning. Seriously, I never expected this would be real.

HU: Her smooth, fluid movements - a fascination.

YAKAMOTO: (Through interpreter) I just came in here for another purpose and I thought why on Earth are all these people taking a picture of a receptionist? I looked at her carefully and I realized it was a robot. She blinks too.

HU: This morning while on the job as a receptionist, she's fooled more than a few folks into thinking she's real.

YAKAMOTO: (Laughter).

HU: Getting a robot to look human without winding up in the uncanny valley that scares children is a difficult balance for designers. Toshiba's Tokuda says it was his team's biggest challenge.

TOKUDA: Eighty percent humanlike is very scary. (Laughter). So it has to be more than 90 percent or close - very close to perfect.

HU: She's lifelike enough to be a hit, drawing people like Chiho Gomi, who showed up not to shop, but to see the android.

CHIHO GOMI: (Through interpreter) Of course I feel more comfortable with real people, but she's interesting.

HU: All the interest in Chihira has Toshiba planning to give her some sisters. The Japanese birthrate for humans may be dropping, but this is still fertile ground for making robots. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.