Currently the number of children that the average Japanese woman can expect to have over her life is around 1.4. This is well below the replacement fertility rate for developed countries of about 2.1 (Japan hasn’t had a fertility rate that high since the 1970s; hence its current population decline). The absolute number of babies being born in the country each year has halved in the last 40 years to around one million while the proportion of the population that is made up of children (those aged 14 and under) is now down to 13%.

Aside from there being fewer people of child-bearing years than in previous generations, one in ten Japanese women will never marry, and there is even a “celibacy syndrome”, menaing that many Japanese will never have children. We have blogged previously about one, slightly bizarre, attempt at ameliorating a lack of children in one small Japanese village. Today, I wanted to bring you a more mainstream solution to the problem of childlessness.

Toyota’s non-automotive department has developed a “baby robot” called the Kirobo Mini (see the photo above). The robot is designed to “invoke an emotional connection” with its owners, has artificial intelligence and a camera so that it can “recognise” the person speaking to it and can respond. Presumably without the trouble and expense and mess of having a dog. In the words of Fuminori Kataoka, the chief design engineer:

“He [sic it should read “it”] wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself … This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.”

The robot also blinks and speaks with “a baby-like high-pitched voice” and can be yours for the small price of 39,800 yen (£300/US$390) when it comes out in Japan next year. It even comes with a “cradle” that doubles as its baby seat designed to fit in car cup holders. I’m not if you also receive a set of steak knives if you order within the next 10 minutes…

I had a Tamagotchi when I was a kid, and this seems like a more expensive version. I suppose well done for Toyota for convincing us we have a need for a robot to have an “emotional connection” with. But really, this is no substitute for a child. The robot is not “vulnerable” and any “emotional connection” is ersatz at best. I wouldn’t be surprised if buyers of the Kirobi Mini hoping to stave off loneliness and the sadness of an unmet desire for children don’t wake up one day, look at their little robot, hurl it across the room, and realise how futile it is as a replacement for a baby.

Wouldn’t a better idea, for lonely Japanese wanting a vulnerable object that they can have an emotional connection with, be to talk to a human being? Japan has an ageing population – thousands of elderly people who are vulnerable and who might quite like to establish an emotional connection with a childless person. Perhaps such a connection might also lessen the horrific problem of kodokushi, the “lonely death”.

Then again, maybe Toyota should just design a robot for the elderly as well, one that can be with them at the end of their lives, and can dispose of their bodies in a hygienic, stress-free way. After all, it is not good for man to be alone. Or at least without a robot companion.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...