I, robot baby

Sometimes, more cash and leave are not enough to nudge birth rates up. Here are some creative measures other countries have adopted to get more babies going.

Baby Yotaro, with a round head and gleaming "eyes", laughs, cries, gets sick and sneezes. It also requires tender loving care.

But the baby is not real. Nor is it a toy. It is a robot infant created by a group of student scientists in 2010 at Japan's University of Tsukuba.

The synthetic but cute Yotaro's mission is to help make people want to have children of their own.

The baby was originally "born" when the students wanted to create a robot with international appeal. Cue a robotic infant, which does not need to have language skills programmed.

But when they took Baby Yotaro to robot competitions, people were intrigued and wanted to touch and play with it.

Project leader Hiroki Kunimura realised Yotaro could well help Japan's fertility crisis.

In an interview with CNN in 2010, Mr Kunimura noted that young Japanese couples are so occupied with work they do not have opportunities to play and interact with babies.

But now, prospective parents can experience caring for Yotaro to see if they want a real baby.

But Japan needs more than just Baby Yotaro. In 2014, the fertility rate slipped to 1.42 from 1.43 the year before.

In Singapore, could a robot baby be key to triggering babymaking emotions? Professor Chen I-Ming, director of Nanyang Technological University's Robotics Research Centre, does not think so.

Using a robot infant to encourage couples to give birth "is a very Japanese idea", he says.

"Japan is obsessed with machines. The people keep robot dogs too," he adds, referring to Aibo, a home-use entertainment robot.

In Singapore, robots are used mainly for research purposes, says Prof Chen. "Besides, it is a huge jump, from playing with a robot, to having a baby."

Pearl Lee


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'I, robot baby'. Print Edition | Subscribe