Why the World Needs “Weak” Robots Like NICOBO: Panasonic Introduces a Cuddly Companion That Bonds with Humans

Apr 13, 2023

Solutions for a Better Future / Feature Story

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Why the World Needs “Weak” Robots Like NICOBO: Panasonic Introduces a Cuddly Companion That Bonds with Humans

“Weak” and “helpless” are not attributes people usually assign to robots. But those words perfectly describe a new smart machine by Panasonic that is available in Japan in May. NICOBO is an adorable, plush robot that doesn’t do a lot. In some ways it seems like an overgrown sock puppet. But it needs people, and in that way it’s helping create a new relationship between humans and robots.

Cuddling up for some detox from digital overload

NICOBO can be better defined by what it can’t do instead of what it can do. It cannot clean the house or even move from one place to another. Ironically enough for a communication robot, at first it cannot even engage in conversation. It mostly wags its tail, rotates and bobs, moves its LCD eyes, engages in baby talk, and breaks wind once in a while. It’s like a lazy but disarmingly cute roommate.

NICOBO can be better defined by 
what it can’t do instead of what it can do

Under its knit fabric covering, however, NICOBO is equipped with some nifty tools: acceleration, gyro, temperature and light sensors, voice recognition and noise-cancelling technology, a Wi-Fi module and an ARM Coretex-A53 quad core CPU, as well as a camera, speaker and three microphones.  

Soft and round, NICOBO feels more like a pet or a baby than a practical machine, but that’s where its value lies. It can express itself through its eye, body and tail movements, and its spoken vocabulary grows over time. By being vulnerable, it can foster a sense of attachment in owners, promote their well-being and perhaps even make them feel better about themselves and the world they live in. NICOBO can help us cultivate happiness. Even its name comes from the Japanese word for “smile.”

Yoichiro Masuda, NICOBO Project Leader, Visual And Sound Business Unit, Panasonic Entertainment & Communication Co., Ltd., has long wanted to contribute toward creating a society where robots and humans can coexist.

As leader of the team of dozens that developed NICOBO, Masuda wanted to meet the needs of people who live alone, a common lifestyle in big cities like Tokyo, and the stresses they face, some of which are made worse by technologies such as smartphones.

“NICOBO can offer a form
of digital detox”

“With digital evolution, and the speed of information always increasing, people are losing their peace of mind,” says Masuda. “Our idea was to create something that was in some ways convenient but also weak, something that can help restore peace of mind and mental richness, an effect that sports, for instance, can produce. NICOBO can offer a form of digital detox.”

Photo: The NICOBO project team with NICOBO

The NICOBO project team wanted to create something convenient but also weak, which can help restore peace of mind and mental richness

The value of being weak: people get satisfaction from helping machines

In 2017, Masuda and colleagues from different departments of Panasonic gathered to collaborate on a project. Even though they had never made a robot before, they had access to all the technologies needed and they had a vision of creating something of value through a different type of user experience. They grappled with what functions NICOBO should have and decided that less was more. 

“It is my opinion as a designer that NICOBO’s value is due to its subtractive design, or in other words, its vulnerability,” says designer Kaho Asano of Panasonic’s Future Life UX. 

The project gathered speed when the team began collaborating with Toyohashi University of Technology engineering professor Michio Okada. In his studies of human-robot interaction, Okada found that overly convenient technologies that perform tasks unaided, such as cleaning robots or autonomous vehicles, do not necessarily translate to increased individual happiness. Part of the reason is that users feel no sense of involvement, connectedness or skill improvement with such inventions.  

Photo: NICOBO on the wooden cabinet

NICOBO expresses itself through its eye, body and tail movements, and its spoken vocabulary grows over time

That’s where “weak robots” come in, a concept that Okada has been exploring for over a decade. Weak robots need people to accomplish a task. Okada’s Sociable Trash Box, for instance, is a compact, wheeled garbage can that can only detect litter—it needs a human to actually pick up the trash and put it in the box. People will involuntarily help these machines, and by doing so feel a sense of satisfaction. 

“Research has shown that the sense of being responsible for something small and vulnerable can alleviate feelings of loneliness in humans and give them a sense of competence and autonomy,” says Okada.

“The sense of being responsible for something
small can alleviate feelings of loneliness”

Cultivating long-term relationships by removing expectations

There’s good reason to believe people will embrace the idea of a weak robot. Videos of NICOBO went viral around the world. In a 2021 crowdfunding campaign for NICOBO, the target number of supporters was achieved in only 6.5 hours. The feedback from these early users portrayed NICOBO as a source of comfort and soothing, much laughter, and something that prompted them to engage in conversation. 

“We took a gamification approach to make NICOBO learn and grow as it spends more time with customers,” says Masuda. “They can experience discoveries and surprises as NICOBO features new contents including new words, new eye varieties and even new farts! NICOBO will evolve to the level of a 2-year-old child and will continue to change. That way, customers won’t get easily bored and can build lasting relationships with NICOBO.”

NICOBO isn’t the first robot for home use. Unlike previously developed companion robots and virtual assistant, though, NICOBO has an independent streak. It does not require a command like “Hey, Nicobo” to interact. In fact, it cannot be controlled, and when spoken to, it may or may not react, just as a pet dog may ignore its owner. 

“When we designed NICOBO we decided to remove all its functionality so that users would have absolutely no expectations of what it could do,” says Masuda. “Some early users have regarded it as a housemate, pet or even family member.”

“When we designed NICOBO we decided
to remove all its functionality”

NICOBO is whimsical and it seems to have feelings of its own even though it’s a machine. In fact, Masuda wants users to think of it as kind of pet. That’s why, beyond the initial purchase price, NICOBO has a basic monthly subscription fee—it can encourage customers to view the purchase as a commitment, like giving a dog a new home. Part of the concept of NICOBO as a business is to foster long-term relationships. To that end, there’s an optional NICOBO Clinic plan at additional cost so that NICOBO can be treated when it is not feeling well, receive repairs and have the machine’s knit fabric cover replaced after regular wear and tear.

Photo: NICOBO on the wooden table

Feedback from early NICOBO owners portrayed the weak robot as a source of comfort and soothing, laughter, and something that prompted them to engage in conversation

NICOBO fits Panasonic’s corporate brand slogan of “Live Your Best.” There is an emerging community of users in Japan, and it may be given additional languages for export. Masuda says that although the concept of weak robots is very Japanese, citing the popular manga and anime robot cat Doraemon, NICOBO can ultimately be just as effective at enhancing people’s well-being in other markets. 

“Although it seems like a pet, since NICOBO speaks a bit of Japanese, users said it has emotional value for them,” says Masuda. “One of the greatest values of NICOBO, however, is its ability to make users feel like it’s alive.”

“One of the greatest values of NICOBO is its
ability to make users feel like it’s alive”

Robotic cat, childlike machine or however else you define it, NICOBO is sure to challenge our view of robots and how we can coexist with them. That’s saying a lot for something so small and weak.

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