Blue-eyed and only nine inches tall, this robot stands in as people’s alter egos—and a solution, the Japanese government hopes, for the country’s legions of social recluses.
Called OriHime, the robot is being deployed in Japan to help those struggling with anxiety about social interactions. Users can operate the robot through an app on their devices, allowing them to communicate with the outside world without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes.
Officials of Kobe City last week said they would lend OriHime to hikikomori, or people with extreme social withdrawal, starting December. It’s the first city government in the country to employ a robot for such services.
Concerns over Japan’s population of hikikomori emerged in the 1990s, when the term was coined. The issue received renewed attention during the COVID-19 pandemic amid a rise in suicides and mental health problems, with governments vowing to do more to combat “loneliness,” an umbrella concern under which hikikomori fall. Earlier this year, Japan appointed its first “loneliness minister,” tasked with addressing isolation issues.
There’s no clear definition of hikikomori. In 2010, some researchers estimated that about 1.2 percent of the country’s population suffered from extreme social isolation, defined as staying home for more than six months without participating in society, such as attending school or work.
Seeking to integrate hikikomori into society, the Japanese government and independent organizations have come up with a series of solutions.
The nonprofit organization New Start, for example, offers “sisters or brothers” for rent—staffers that families of hikikomori can recruit to talk to their isolated loved ones. At 100,000 yen a month for weekly hourlong visits, such interactions are said to help reduce the stress of interacting with the outside world and help them feel less isolated.
In Kobe City, where the OriHime robot is being deployed, officials have set up 13 transitional community centers where hikikomori can socialize safely. Sometimes, individuals interact with staff remotely, and others who have started to slowly edge out of their homes can physically visit the center. OriHime will make its debut at one of these hubs.
“It’s our latest effort to make a safe space for hikikomori,” Emiko Sakai, a director of Kobe City’s hikikomori support center, told VICE World News.
About 6,600 people in Kobe City, about 0.4 percent of its 1.5 million population, suffer from extreme social isolation.
Developed by the Japanese company ORY Laboratory, the OriHime robot has two arms, which it moves about expressively while talking. Rather than using their actual voices, users type phrases into the app, which the robot then reads aloud.
Not even a foot tall, OriHime is far shorter than an average adult. But according to Sakai, that’s the point.
“It’s much more portable, so staff members can easily place the robot on tables and other surfaces. That way, the robot will then be at eye level with the people hikikomori are communicating with,” Sakai said.
The city government plans to use a timetable so hikikomori can borrow the robot, which is free of charge, according to their needs.
Unlike online chatting, OriHime’s appeal is it allows users to interact with others using a body that mimics a human’s, which allows for non-verbal communication cues.
“We hope this helps hikikomori feel like they aren’t alone,” Sakai said.
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