Female researchers working with Yotaro report catching "baby fever". They began to fantasize about having children of their own.  (Source: CNN)

Yotaro cries and moves much like a real baby.  (Source: CNN)
Strange robot may provide a novel solution to Japan's population shrinkage

In a country where robots assist in a broad range of duties -- from caring for the elderly, to mopping the floor, and even exploring the depths of space -- the artificial companions may have been handed their most important assignment yet.  

Biology compels most organisms to reproduce.  But in Japan, something bizarre is happening -- couples aren't reproducing.  The nation has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and to make matters worse, it also has one of the highest life expectancies.  It is expected that 40 percent of its population will be over the age of 65 by 2050.

Japan in recent years has also been shown to have the least sex on a weekly basis – only 34 percent of Japanese reported having sex on a weekly basis while a whopping 87 percent of Greeks were getting busy under the sheets.

Enter Yotaro, a charming "low-tech" robot.  Yotaro cries, giggles, and kicks when you tickle him.  He sneezes and his nose runs. When he is upset, he even shakes his rattle to calm  down.  But Yotaro is no human child -- he's a “synthetic”.  Hiroki Kunimura, of the University of Tsukuba led the team who created the tyke.  He states, "A robot can't be human but it's great if this robot triggers human emotions, so humans want to have their own baby."

This novel use of the baby was chanced upon.  Originally the idea was just to create a robot with international appeal.  As a baby has no language skills, it would face no language barrier like an adult android might.

Then the research noticed the unusual reaction people had to the baby -- they began to want to have children of their own.  This year, the Japanese federal government offered 13,000 yen, approximately $150 USD, per month, per child as an incentive to have children.  But it may be little Yotaro that convinces them to listen to their biological clocks.

Project member Madoka Hirai said she never thought about having a child, but after Yotaro became baby preoccupied.  She began to notice ads for baby clothes and think about what it might be like to have a baby of her own.  

Kunimura, who refers to himself as Yotaro's daddy, says that reaction may hold the key to solving Japan's crisis.  He states, "People asked us if this baby robot was created to tackle the low birth rate in Japan.  I think it's true that young working couples have no chance to have personal contact with babies in their lives. The people who came to the robot exhibitions enjoyed touching Yotaro, like a real baby."

There's no official plans for a wide-scale rollout of Yotaro yet, but it would not be surprising if the government tries to give them away to citizens.  After all, if you have to pay citizens $1,800 USD a year to have a baby, that's a sign you're in pretty dire trouble.


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