At CES this year, there was one thing I was more excited to see than anything else: a robot I've been waiting to meet for almost three years.
A little like a penguin, a little like a sloth, Lovot is a companion robot with big googly eyes and an even bigger AI-powered heart. It's designed and built by Kaname Hayashi, who's best known as "the father of Pepper," for designing Softbank's semi-iconic robot that can be found in banks, airports and many other public spaces around the world.
Lovot has been a passion project for Hayashi for many years now. The last time I met with Pepper's dad was back in 2016, at the office of his company Groove X, high above the neon-lit Akihabara district of Tokyo. At the time, Hayashi told me he was building a companion robot that was "cuter than BB-8," though he kept the design and name firmly under wraps. He also told me he wanted the robot to help cure the epidemic of loneliness that's a particular problem in his home country of Japan.
Japan isn't the only country struggling with loneliness. In a nationwide survey of 20,000 Americans last year, almost 50 percent said they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. It's a serious issue; loneliness and social isolation are better predictors than obesity of early death.
On hearing Hayashi's plans during my visit to Tokyo, I felt more than a little skeptical that a robot could truly cure loneliness. But I was also intrigued to see what such a robot would look like and whether it could live up to its promise.
Now that I've finally met Lovot, I can confirm it's an endearing little thing. It buzzes around autonomously on wheels with pressure sensors to prevent it bumping into things. When it wants to be picked up and hugged, it bats its little fuzzy wings and will tuck its wheels up like an airplane taking flight so it's super comfy to hold. The camera poised on its head allows Lovot to recognize you and make eye contact -- if it doesn't know you it may be more shy around you, whereas if it does, it's likely to seek you out more for attention and play,
Just as Hayashi promised, it's just as delightful as BB-8, if not more so. But it's not just seeing the robot that's made me feel optimistic Hayashi might succeed with his mission. It's taken a shift in my mindset too.
I didn't grow up with pets -- hamsters don't really count -- so I didn't understand the real and significant impact a nonverbal companion could have on quality of life. But in the intervening period between meeting Hayashi in Tokyo and then again in Las Vegas, an over-friendly ginger cat called Toulouse slinked his way into my life and heart.
What I can now attest to is the stark difference a nonhuman companion has made in my day-to-day mood and overall happiness. I don't live alone, but I know that when my boyfriend is away, it can be easy to sink into a funk. Likewise, I know that having something waiting for me to come home every day, that meets me by the door, that seeks me out to interact or ask for a cuddle, can really alleviate the intrusive negative feelings associated with loneliness.
But having a pet is a big responsibility, and not a viable option for everyone who might want one. Why not, then, opt for the closest possible alternative? I can see why someone might.
For some, the idea of humans relying on robots for companionship might be the definition of a sad state of affairs. But the point of Lovot is not a simple case of swapping human or animal companionship for that of a robot. It's about ensuring you don't fall into a spiral of self-perpetuating social and emotional isolation.
When you're living alone without something or someone you love, you become unpractised at loving and socializing, Hayashi told me as we spoke on the Las Vegas show floor. "But if you love something every day, then you have the power of love. You are ready to love something," he said. "We try to train people with the power of love to be ready for loving something else."
In some ways then, Lovot is designed to keep you warm and to bring out your compassion, your readiness to engage emotionally. It also can quite literally keep you warm thanks to the heat that radiates from its body as you wrap your arms around it. Such physical contact is one feature Hayashi said will help you bond with your Lovot.
"I think three elements are important," he said. "One is touch, one is eye contact, and one is the ability to recognize you."
Lovot robots won't be cheap when they go on sale (at the end of this year in Japan and in 2020 elsewhere). They'll be sold in pairs and priced at about $5,000-$6,000 for the two. I was curious to find out why they'll be sold that way.
"Because when we understand the relationship between these two, we feel the social mind in the robot," Hayashi explained. "When we feel the social mind in something, we start to respect that."
As we talked, the Lovot that was nestled in Hayashi's arms started to drop off -- its bug eyes blinking and heavy. I couldn't help but coo, because the gadget is undeniably cute. I'm well aware that it takes more than cuteness to cure loneliness, but I could already feel myself starting to succumb to Lovot's charms.
I don't think Lovot is for me right now, at this stage in my cohabiting, cat-blessed life. But if my circumstances were different? I'm certain I wouldn't dismiss the idea without first trying it.
If there's one thing I learned walking around the robotics section of the CES show floor, it's that robots will increasingly play a part in all areas of life, and that as a result, humans will increasingly become used to interacting with them. Many of those interactions will be practical and emotionless, but they needn't all be.
At the very least, Lovot is a toy that'll inspire joy via its inherent sweetness. At best, it could help tackle a problem that afflicts many people all around the world, by preventing isolation, providing companionship and keeping people open to the promises of love and friendship. And if that prospect doesn't tug on your heartstrings, I don't know what will.
First published Jan. 9, 4:08 p.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 10, 12:20 p.m. PT: Added more details about what the robot does.
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