Japanese Robot to Chat with Elderly

TOKYO - Japan's growing elderly population will be able to buy companionship in the form of a 45-centimeter (18-inch) robot, programmed to provide small talk.

Snuggling Ifbot, who is dressed in an astronaut suit with a glowing face, has the conversation ability of a five year old, the language level needed to stimulate the brains of senior citizens, its software designer said.

If a person tells Snuggling Ifbot, "I'm bored today," the robot might respond, "Are you bored? What do you want to do?"

To a statement, "Isn't it nice today?" the robot could say, "It is a fine autumn day," by detecting the season from its internal clock.

The company has received 128 pre-launch orders for the robot which hit stores Wednesday at a cost of 576,000 yen (5,600 U.S. dollars).

Other than the conversation function, the robot has 15 programs to keep the elderly thinking and healthy, including singing songs, reading out quiz games and old news, and inquiring about health functions.

While for now Snuggling Ifbot speaks only Japanese, its makers plan to program the robot in English -- not for export, but to teach the language to Japanese children.

The Japanese are famous for their longevity, with more than 23,000 people aged 100 or over, in part due to a traditionally healthy diet and active lifestyle.

Japanese society is set to be getting ever grayer as more young people put off marriage and decide against having children. Japan's birth rate hit an all time low of 1.29 children per woman in 2003.

The robot was developed in cooperation with Business Design Laboratory, Futaba Industrial Co., and Brother Industries.

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