A 13-inch-high humanoid robot is being rocketed through the heavens for a rendezvous on the International Space Station where it will join a Japanese astronaut and serve as a mechanized, but intelligent, friend.
Companion robots are being considered for a wide range of applications with humans, and the weekend launch into deep space is a first for the burgeoning field of walking, talking and intelligent robots.
Humanoid robots have a head, torso and appendages.
The diminutive black and white robot with red-booted feet is equipped with face and voice recognition technology and is expected to arrive at the station in November.
"Robots can serve as effective communication partners and can entertain us with jokes and stories," said S. Shyam Sundar, a robot expert and professor at Pennsylvania State University. He commends Japanese robot developers for pioneering humanoid automatons that fill a variety of social roles.
Even as robots become more intelligent and humanoid, there is no reason to fear them, Sundar said.
"They function autonomously, but do not have their own intentions," he added. "It is very similar to avatars in virtual environments."
The difference with Kirobo, whose name is derived from the Japanese words for "hope" and "robot," is that it has an embodied physical presence in a real environment, Sundar said.
For decades, robots in the United States have been best known for assuming roles in manufacturing -- and looking nothing like humans -- even as they eliminated jobs.
Many robots in a variety of shapes and sizes are being studied to perform a host of tasks that range from caring for the disabled to teaching children with autism how to make eye contact.
As a companion robot, Kirobo is expected to keep astronaut Koichi Wakata company and talk to him as Wakata goes about his space station tasks. Kirobo is arriving at the space station along with several tons of equipment.
Kirobo is central to an investigation under way in Japan exploring human-robot interactions. The robot has an Earth-based counterpart, Mirata, with which it will also communicate once it reaches the space station.
Sundar said Japan boasts the world's most advanced applications in robotics and artificial intelligence.
He and his colleagues also have been studying human-robot interactions in this country and found Americans are not as open as the Japanese to humanoid robots. Sundar has found the more humanlike the robot, the more off-putting they seem here.
"There is a phenomenon in robotics called uncanny valley," Sundar said. "People get creeped out when the resemblance of a robot to a human is uncanny."