Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The world's first space-faring humanoid robot has taken up residency on the International Space Station, and it turns out the little guy is feeling quite chatty.
The pint-sized 'droid is named Kirobo, developed by Toyota, the University of Tokyo and robotics-maker Robo Garage. He's been living in the space station since August, and was recently joined by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, along with two other human colleagues from the U.S. and Russia.
Footage filmed December 6 shows Kirobo and Wakata having a natural-sounding conversation in Japanese. "What will you ask for from Santa Claus, Kirobo?" the 'bot is asked. "I want a toy rocket," Kirobo replies. "Let's ask Santa Claus."
Although the video has some clear edit points, this is the first footage ever of a human and a robot communicating verbally in space.
It has taken decades of trying to get a machine communicating on this level, but not even tech giants Apple and Google, with their massive server farms and nearly unlimited processing power, have pulled off a verbal interface that functions so naturally.
Kirobo is expected to remain on the space station for about 18 months, during which time the astronauts will keep testing out his communications abilities. The team behind the Kirobo project explains that they aim to use the technology to address problems created by modern societies that seem to have driven people apart rather than bring them together.
"Nowadays, more and more people are living alone," their website's "vision" section says. "It's not just the elderly -- with today's changing lifestyles, it's people of all ages. With a new style of robot-human interface, perhaps a way to solve this problem could be found. This is the goal we have in mind for this project."
"What is your dream, Kirobo?" Wakata asks in the video below. "I want to help create a world where humans and robots can coexist," the robot replies.
With his friendly demeanor and snappy response time, it seems Kirobo has taken a real step toward doing just that. Given that all of his tech is housed inside Kirobo's little mechanical brain, it seems increasingly clear that we'll all be talking to our Internet-enabled devices in a similar fashion quite soon.