For Lonely Astronauts, a Robotic Companion

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Koichi Wakata will have a humanoid pal to keep him company in space.

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Soon, he'll have a tech-savvy buddy to help him out. (Space Operations and Astronaut Training)

You know the only thing lonelier than Sgt. Pepper's Hearts Club Band, and the Heartbreak Hotel, and the number one? Being alone and also not on Earth. Space, for all its wonder, for all its provocations, for all its adventure, is an isolating place -- which is why behavioral screening is part of the astronaut selection process, and also why some the most intriguing scientific experiments being conducted aboard the ISS are psychological in scope.

For Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, though, space-borne loneliness may be assuaged by a different kind of experiment. A team of researchers at Tokyo University -- along with the robot creator Tomotaka Takahashi and the ad agency Dentsu -- have been since 2011 spearheading a project to give Wakata some companionship during his upcoming stint on the International Space Station. That project? A small humanoid robot that will be sent to live with Wakata on the orbiting laboratory. The android will be 13.4 inches tall and 2.2 pounds. It will arrive at the ISS next summer, a few months ahead of Wakata's own arrival. Its name is still to be determined -- by a public contest -- but it will look, per a sketch released yesterday, something like this

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Tomotaka Takahashi via the Kibo Robot Project

Spacey! Yet for all the anime-ed cheekiness of the android's design, it was built to fulfill a fairly important purpose: to reduce the stress that astronauts naturally encounter as they're orbiting the Earth. "The robot would provide stress-relieving facial expressions and words (to the astronauts)," a representative from JAXA, Japan's space agency, told the Wall Street Journal when the project was announced last year. And it would do that in part by scanning astronauts' faces to detect any signs of stress, and -- slightly more creepily -- by taking pictures of them. 

Which is to say: It would do basically (if not, of course, entirely) what a human companion would, simulating the intimacy of close proximity while not fully embracing it. That's significant, because while Wakata certainly won't be alone on the ISS -- he'll be accompanied by a team of fellow astro- and cosmonauts -- he'll be somewhat linguistically isolated from his fellow space travelers. Given the fact that his stint on the ISS, as the first Japanese commander of the facility, will last for six months ... that kind of connection to home and native language could prove valuable, for both Wakata and his crew. Particularly in the kind of high-stress situations that are not uncommon when the situations happen to be unfolding in space.

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But the robot will earn its keep in other ways, too. The amiable little android will act not just as a conversationalist, but also as a conduit of information -- between Earth and the Japanese Kibo laboratory on the space station, where the robot will spend its time while Wakata is busy carrying out his other duties. (The robot will also, apparently, tweet.) 

Through a gig that is this high-profile (literally!), the robot will also serve as a nice little advertisement for the Kibo Project itself. The fact that a marketing agency is part of the project's team is telling -- because, for all the sense that andro-nauts make, the ultimate goal is for the robots to be used on Earth, too. "Kibo" means "hope." And JAXA is hoping that the humanoid robots will be used for terrestrial undertakings like elder care and general companionship. "It would be a 'communication robot' -- for preventing isolated individuals from feeling lonely," JAXA said of the android.

Speaking of "isolated individuals," another thing that will have a companion in all this is the robot itself. Wakata's humanoid friend will join NASA's American androids -- one of which above -- which are being developed to help astronauts with tasks that are either too mundane or too dangerous for humans to do. The androids' names, at this point? Robonaut and Robonaut2.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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