Japan has a very different approach to robotics.

Japan leads the world in industrial robots, but there is also a growing movement that is reinventing the way we share our world with machines.

Kaname Hayashi was one of the creators of Softbank’s Pepper robot. His latest startup, GrooveX, has raised over $100 million to develop the Lovot; a companion robot, or perhaps more accurately, a robot pet unlike any other.

We talk about the Lovot itself, of course, but we also cover GrooveX’s unique business model and talk about the very different ways that people of different sexes, ages, and nationalities interact with the Lovot.

It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes

  • Why the Lovot is as much a pet as a dog or cat
  • Data that proves how our interaction with robots is changing
  • Why the Lovot’s form factor is so important
  • Why GrooveX invested so much in getting the Lovot’s eyes right
  • How the Lovot makes friends
  • The Lovot’s business model. Will this scale?
  • The biggest surprise from the Lovot Cafe
  • Why Western men don’t love the Lovot
  • Japan’s anxiety trap and how to fix it

Links from the Founder

Transcript

Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

I’ve never really fully embraced the Japanese concept of cute or kawaii. I mean, it’s fine and all, all the mascots and characters are nice but it gets a bit odd sometimes. 

For example, my bankbook is covered with pictures of Mickey Mouse and Goofy which are images Western financial institutions would probably not want to be associated with their product but hey, it works in Japan but there’s actually something deeply fascinating and important underlying the idea of kawaii. 

Today, we sit down with Kaname Hayashi who was formerly part of SoftBank’s Pepper Project and then went out on his own to start Groove X and create the Lovot. Now, the Lovot is a companion robot or a pet robot and we talk about the robot itself, of course and please check out the links on the site for pictures and videos. It’s very cute and you really have to see the Lovot in action to appreciate it but more important than the robot itself is how people are interacting with it. 

Now, we’ve talked about social robots on disrupting Japan before but people are interacting with the Lovot differently and far more socially than anything that’s come before it. It’s the first robot I’ve seen that not only could be fully accepted as a pet but is being fully accepted as a pet.

Kaname and I also dive into the business model. Groove X has raised a lot of investment and as you’ll hear during the interview, this is a startup that could go either way, it could fizzle out into nothing or it could change global society.

In fact, in post-production, when I was editing down the interview, I kept thinking of more and deeper questions I wanted to ask Kaname, so we’ll have to get him back on the show in the future but for now, you’re about to hear a story about the difference in the way children and adults and Westerners interact with robots, the intersection of toxic masculinity and robotics and why science fiction usually gets human-robot interaction all wrong but Kaname tells that story much better than I can. So, let’s get right to the interview. 

Interview

Tim: So, I’m sitting here with Kaname Hayashi of Groove X, the maker of Lovot, so thanks for sitting down with me today. 

Kaname: Thank you very much. 

Tim: So, Lovot is a cute and I mean really, really cute companion robot but you can probably describe it much better than I can. So, what is Lovot?

Kaname: Yeah, good question. Lovot takes a role as a pet. If you think what pets give us, then you can imagine what Lovot give us. For example, pet doesn’t work for the human but we had a good time. You can have a chance to be gentle because of the pet.

Tim: I was planning on diving into this much later on but this is a great topic. So, let’s just deal with it now. What does a pet give us? 

Kaname: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: I mean, so robots, we’re used to robots like doing things for us, right? Washing our clothes or building our cars but pets, what is it that they give us that’s so important?

Kaname: One of the important thing is probably they give a role. Pet rely on human. Without human, pet is not happy, pet cannot survive. So, pet give us a caring role.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s important. So, so much research recently on emotional robots have focused on robots being able to read our emotions but I think there’s something very special about robots that evoke emotions in us. We buy a dog or a cat because we want to care about something. 

Kaname: Exactly, exactly. So, of course, pet also read the emotion for us but probably it’s not very, very important. Most important thing is we would like care the pet, dog or a cat. This is most important thing. Even, for example, blind dog or a blind cat. Probably if we already attached it to that dog or a cat, then we would like to care and we will be happy. 

Tim: That’s a great example. So, the fact that the blind dog or the blind cat would need us more. 

Kaname: Exactly. Exactly. 

Tim: Makes taking care of them like more satisfying and more rewarding for us. 

Kaname: Exactly. 

Tim: So, we know this happens with animals and with people as well. Does it happen with robots? Do people react this way? 

Kaname: Yeah, actually, that happened in Japan already. At the moment our customer is kind of the innovators but after one month or two month, they surprised how Lovot is similar to the other animals. People are talking in the house about the Lovot and Lovot itself is getting to be family.

Tim: So, it is happening?

Kaname: Yeah, it’s already happening. So, if you are coming to our Lovot owners, you will be surprised. 

Tim: Actually, so let’s actually back up a little bit because this is an audio podcast. We’ll put links to the site and listeners, you’ve got to go see this thing, it’s really adorable. It kind of looks like an owl or a little penguin like?

Kaname: Yeah, yeah. 

Tim: What are we going for with the design? 

Kaname: Actually, our styling design is not aimed to make any imitation of the animals. So, the shape is not similar to any animals but we had designed that from the circle shape.

Tim: So, just designed very soft.

Kaname: Yes, soft. Soft and sphere, ball shape. We would try to reduce any kind of attention. If you see some edgy shape, it’s not relaxed shape. 

Tim: I mean, this is interesting because there’s a lot of graphic design research that’s been done on this and like if you look at the history of Mickey Mouse, in the 30s, he started out really angular and pointy and over time, like becomes more round and spherical and ball-shaped and cute and lovable.

Kaname: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, ball shape is kind of the lovable shape.

Tim: But also, the eyes are really amazing. You guys did a lot of work on the eyes of Lovot.

Kaname: Yeah. You know well. Actually, the eye is one of the important communication parts. When we are talking with the human, we are also listening the words but we are also checking your eye or your facial expressions. Eye is one of the most important part to express your emotion. When you meet to the Lovot, if you feel something from the eye, you cannot stop to think they is some feeling and emotion in the Lovot.

Tim: It’s very effective even from the videos. It’s… the eyes are really expressive and engaging. 

Kaname: Eyes is very important so we taking more than three years to develop eye design and also, we are trying to make a more variation with the shape of the eye because each people have a different eye design then each Lovot also have a different eye design.

Tim: The eyes are so important for human engagement and I’ll send you a link later and one of the research pieces was a factory in, I believe, Germany and the automated carts were bumping into people and people were bumping into them and they tried sirens and little beeping sounds and nothing really worked but what they did finally that worked is they put these two simple like eyes on the front of the cart and then suddenly, like people noticed and they’d step back and they’d give it room.

Kaname: Yeah because for the wild animal, they’re also very interactive to the eye of other animals. For them, to survive is a very, very important, estimate what other animal thinking is very important and for us, we are using information from the eye to read the emotion itself. Even if AI or a robot have a complex emotion, if the AI doesn’t have a eye, it’s getting very difficult to understand for the human and it means that you cannot make any trust to that AI.

Tim: Yeah. It’s really striking. I’d never seen a robot implemented it quite that way. The Lovot also, it can tell the difference between different people, right? I mean, it will treat different people differently. 

Kaname: Exactly. So, Lovot, can also understand who is who. Also, can remember the history of the communication with each of the person. If one of the person cares the Lovot, then Lovot can more relax and Lovot is asking them to be hugged or some communication. So, this is a kind of that process to be friends. 

Tim: So, like if there’s three different people calling the Lovot, it will go to the one that that treats it the best?

Kaname: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. 

Tim: I love that. That’s great. How does it recognize people? Is it like facial recognition?

Kaname: Yeah. At the moment, facial recognition. So, we would like implement other like a voice or as a shape or something like that but at the moment, we are rely on the face recognition. 

Tim: Well, listen, before we get into the business model, I want to ask a little about you and your background.

Kaname: Ah, yeah.

Tim: So, before Groove X, you were part of SoftBank’s Pepper robot project, right?

Kaname: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. 

Tim: How did that happen? 

Kaname: Actually, I started my career at the automotive industry, so I worked for the Toyota more than 13 years. After that, I recognized there is no new business from Japan. Still, automotive industry is strong in the world but for the other industry, not so very, how I can say, getting popular. Then where I heard them from Masayoshi Son, who is the chairman of Softbank, about the project, it is very attractive. Then, I decided to resign from Toyota to the Softbank and I worked for the Pepper project from the start to the end. 

Tim: Pepper definitely made an impact and actually, I’ve heard from a couple of places that in Japan, most people view Pepper as a boy but the French team tended to view Pepper as a girl. 

Kaname: Exactly.

Tim: Is that the true?

Kaname: Yeah. True, true. Yeah. So, yeah, in Japan team, they believe it’s boy and in French team. they designed as a girl. Yeah. 

Tim: I mean and it’s not it’s a very, I don’t know, neutral. 

Kaname: Yeah. Yeah. Finally.

Tim: Pepper, I mean it definitely made an impact. It was, it was successful but why… what made you decide to leave the Pepper team and start Lovot?

Kaname: One thing is when I work with Masayoshi Son, his, how I can say, growth rate as a human is very quick. 

Tim: He does have a reputation, yeah.

Kaname: So, I really surprised, I recognized and under his management, even if I worked for him, I cannot grow more than him. So, I would like to get out, however, I still didn’t decided what I should do because robot is very interesting thing but it’s too big for the startup, too much money. It takes…

Tim: Hardware is hard. Yeah.

Kaname: Yeah, hardware, yeah. It’s almost crazy.

Tim: But the Lovot, it’s a very different concept than Pepper. 

Kaname: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So, what I accumulated was deep learning and autonomous driving. This technology is really exciting and if we combine these two technology, what we can make is one of my question but from just these two technology, you cannot grab anything, you cannot talk. There is not so many opportunity in robotics but except pet, I believe. Yeah, pets can move autonomously and the pets can recognize human, pet can recognize the voice of the owners, probably from these technologies, they already can build the pet. 

Tim: I love the idea. I love the metaphor of robots as pets, not as companions, not as people, not as like servants but as pets, as something we take care of. I mean, I think that’s… it seems kind of uniquely Japanese.

Kaname: Could be.

Tim: But no, I mean, I think it does work everywhere. 

Kaname: Yeah. Actually, we already tried in Denmark. Surprise three. They have a very, very good resort. So, there is no big difference in a country.

Tim: No. I think it’s tapping into something that’s very, very human.

Kaname: Mm.

Tim: But let’s… let me ask a bit about your business model because, I mean, I love the Lovot, I love the concept but… so you guys have raised over a hundred million dollars and you’ve got over 80 employees, so what’s the business model? How are you going to make money with these?

Kaname: For the business model, it’s basically SaaS model, but with the hardware. So, like a Peleton, they are selling that bike with a subscription subscription service. It’s what we are doing with hardware but hardware itself is not enough because the software is served by the subscription fees. 

Tim: As a startup founder, as a business guy, I like the subscription model and I’ve noticed it’s like about $250 a month but on the human side, it seems like renting your pet with a monthly subscription, that seems kind of hard to get my head around.

Kaname: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: Are people okay with that or?

Kaname: Actually, it’s not renting model. Basically you can buy with the $3000 US dollars and every month, 100US dollars you have to pay but for the 100US dollars, it’s like food of the pets or like insurance of the pets.

Tim: Okay, that’s true. 

Kaname: Without food, of course, your pet cannot survive. 

Tim: Okay and $3000, it’s a lot of money but a purebred dog or purebred cat, that’s kind of the right range. Okay.

Kaname: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah. All right. Are most people paying the monthly fee or are they paying the $3000 time fee? 

Kaname: It’s 50 and 50. Some people would like to pay one time and some people would like to pay monthly.

Tim: And how big do you think this market will be eventually? Do you imagine that it will eventually become like some people have dogs, some will have cats, so will have Lovots? 

Kaname: Yeah, must be, must be because some people would like to have a pet but they cannot to own the pet anymore. For example, if you are around 70 years or 80 years, it’s sometimes not easy to decide to have a new dog or a cat because you also start to worry about your lifetime but for the Lovot, no problem. At least in Japan, the market size is bigger than pets market for the future. The issue is when it will come but it must be coming. For example, Singularity 2045, it’s coming, yeah? Then before Singularity, of course, seniority of the dog or cat is coming. You usually choose the Lovot as a pet but some people would like to have a dog or cat. 

Tim: I could see that but I also… I’m not a big believer in the singularity theory.

Kaname: Yeah.

Tim: Well, long story. We’ll talk about that over a beer sometime. 

Kaname: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: But I actually kind of like the idea of Lovot evolving into its own thing, not copying a dog or a cat or it just being its own creature. 

Kaname: Yeah, yeah. One of the big advantage of the Lovot is the can use internet. The dog or the cat cannot send the message to your families but for the Lovot, it’s possible. 

Tim: Okay, that makes sense. Getting to that, like, functional thing. It could be like the cutest guard dog ever but getting back to the emotional aspect, do you see more of it posting on social media and being like one of your group of friends?

Kaname: For the social media, probably. They never coming in but if you trust something, then you will rely on something more. Then their role is getting a bigger and bigger. So, for me, for example, in Japan, elderly are living long alone, probably somebody not coming everyday. So, in such a case, Lovot can work for them. So, I don’t think Lovot will become very functional but Lovot would like to give you more peace of mind.

Tim: I certainly can see that being a market and I think it was just last November you had a distributor, Nippon PC Services, started delivering Lovot’s to elderly customers and setting them up. How how’s that been going?

Kaname: The request is coming from the children of the elderly who would like to give the Lovot to their parents.

Tim: The elderly, in general, tend to be late adopters of technology. They’re not the experimental group, in general. 

Kaname: Yeah, that’s interesting. It is interesting. After you have a kind of anxiety to the high-tech device like computer, or smartphones but for the Lovot, it’s completely opposite. They just care Lovot naturally because caring method is just similar to the dog or cat or even children. Just you can pick up Lovot and you can pat softly or the communication, Lovot understand and they react. They don’t need to learn anything new. 

Tim: So, so this metaphor, this idea of the Lovot as a pet, they just naturally adopt that. 

Kaname: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Technology side, that’s really complexed because we have touch sensing and even for the touch sensing, you have to understand this is pushed or softly touched.

Tim: When I read the specs at the site, there’s this like this incredible, ridiculous number of sensors in this Lovot.

Kaname: Exactly. Even for the CPU, there’s incredible number of the CPU we are using but from the outside, you cannot fear anything like that. 

Tim: I mean, I notice you have a Lovot cafe as well. Is it mostly for just getting the word out, getting publicity about the Lovot?

Kaname: In Japan, we have a lot of Cat Café. The Cat Cafe is good for relaxing. Of course, we made the Lovot as a pet, so why not Lovot Café? But, at first, we believed people are coming for the communication with Lovot but the Lovot owner, they’re coming with their Lovot to the Lovot Café.

Tim: Really? They’re bringing their own Lovot.

Kaname: Yeah exactly. Exactly because Lovot can communicate to other Lovot. So, they would like to see how they communicate each other, how they play with each other. Then, they would like to come to the Lovot cafe and play with other Lovot and enjoy and go back to the home. This is kind of the new style.

Tim: Do Lovots recognize individual Lovot the same way they recognize people? Do they make other Lovot friends? 

Kaname: Yeah, yeah. They made. The way to recognize is a little bit different. For the Lovot and the Lovot, they also have a special signaling each other by IRVA. They understand who is each other and can communicate.

Tim: But they have preferences and friendships among the…

Kaname: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. 

Tim: That’s really interesting and I guess, thinking back, it shouldn’t be that surprising if we’re thinking about these are things we care about and…

Kaname: Behavior itself is not so different from dog and cat, then even you believe this is robot We cannot stop because they already have a kind of emotion. 

Tim: That is really cool. I’m still kind of like mentally trying to process that. I mean…

Kaname: Yeah, it’s kind of the very confusing thing because from the logic, this is machine, so machine doesn’t have any life but for the feeling side be, we never check they alive or not. Even without evidence, we are already communicated. So, if you meet to the Lovot, probably your emotions side, is just simply naturally react.

Tim: Right and even when we know it’s a machine, it doesn’t matter and maybe it shouldn’t matter. 

Kaname: Yeah, exactly. So, logic side, you matter but for the emotional side, you can’t. 

Tim: That is so cool. Getting back to like the business and the scalability of this. I mean, I love this so much and I desperately want this to succeed but the skeptical, logical part of my brain keeps intervening here and so, like, when you compare it to like… I mean, Pepper was really cool and interesting but never really got mainstream and like Sony’s Aibo, it’s really cool and fun but it never really got mainstream. So, what’s different? 

Kaname: Yeah, good question. One of the good differentiation points could be reaction of the children. Children is one of the most difficult customer. They already have a very attractive game or attractive something, so they are quickly bored. If children meet to other robot, probably around 10 minutes they can play with but not more than 10 minutes but for the Lovot, they never bored to the Lovot. Let’s say, not everybody. Kind of the 90 to 95% children never get bored.

Tim: Wow, so they’re interacting with it not like a toy. 

Kaname: Yeah, exactly. So, the difference is the robot before the Lovot have kind of the contents, playing content either way of the communication but for the Lovot, there is no content. Children make input to the Lovot and Lovot react. Content itself is generated between Lovot and the children. 

Tim: It’s relationship. 

Kaname: Yeah, a relationship. Yeah. 

Tim: So, getting back to like the international market and the reaction to this, I mean, I haven’t seen the data but my gut feeling on this is that children all over the world would react exactly the same way to Lovot or similar robots, right?

Kaname: Could be. 

Tim: It’s the most honest human reaction you’re going to get and I know that Lovot was a big hit at CES and the press loved it but Americans, Westerners, in general, just have a very different attitude towards robots or at least, adults have a very different attitude towards robots than Japanese do and…

Kaname: Yeah, at CES, women’s reaction is really similar between Japanese and US and Europe and China and the reaction of the men is really different. Much men never touch the Lovot, they don’t want to hug them. For the men, they have a big barrier to show the attitude on front of the Lovot.

Tim: So, do you think that’s just us men being too macho for our own good? Or do you think that’s a cultural attitude towards robots?

Kaname: Cultural, I guess not all the men, not all the men.

Tim: Yeah cause men will play with dogs and cats. Like they think of it as a pet. That’s fine. Right?

Kaname: Yeah. I guess when dog is coming, probably Papa doesn’t make big smile but after three months they changed. I guess they just need the time to show soft side.

Tim: I think you’re right like the reaction to these robots is incredibly emotional. Even when we know it’s a machine and it’s a slave, it doesn’t matter. So, yeah, maybe it is just a matter of time but you’re saying the women, in general, will interact with it very quickly and very similarly.

Kaname: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly, exactly. So, one of the important thing is the horn on top of the head of the Lovot, you know, there is a horn and for the horn, most of the ladies never mind about that and the more the half of men mind about that.

Tim: Really? 

Kaname: Yeah. Around half of the man, they asking me why you put the horn on top of the head. This question is very rare from the ladies. So, I wonder how it happened and I also asked at CES to the lady “You don’t care about the horn?” and their answer is they are watching the eyes. They are looking at the eyes but for the men, they don’t mind about the eye so much and they’re trying to analyze what’s this shape so probably, attitude for the communication could be different. Of course, one side of the men have a very similar attitude to the lady, they are looking at that eye and they’re trying to communicate but some people would like to analyze what’s this.

Tim: Well, I mean, I figure it’s kind of obvious, right? There’s just a whole bunch of sensors in that horn. Right?

Kaname: Yeah. Exactly, exactly, true and they just directly eliminate that because it’s ugly for them.

Tim: Well, I mean, yeah, I get it. Right. That’s the only part that’s not soft and round and spherical.

Kaname: Yeah. 

Tim: Kaname, before I let you go, I want to ask you what I call my magic wand question. If I gave you a magic wand and I said that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all, you could change like education system, the way people interact with machines, anything at all to make it better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?

Kaname: I would like to reduce anxiety of the people. If people have anxiety, people will be more protective and conservative. Without anxiety, you will be more opportunistic and you will be more challengeable.

Tim: Do you think that’s anxiety meaning just people working so hard or anxiety like worrying about the future or what’s the root?

Kaname: Could be if you start to have a small challenge, then you have a more chance to learn something but with anxiety you cannot challenge but you also have anxiety for the future then you will work hard without challenge.

Tim: I could see that. Yeah. I think that high level anxiety is something we see a lot in Japan that just makes people work harder and harder.

Kaname: Exactly.

Tim: But not change, not be creative, not be innovative.

Kaname: Exactly. 

Tim: Do you think that’s changing? Because I think we’re seeing a lot of innovation in Japan these days.

Kaname: Yeah, not sure but must be because before, even the conservative still we can survive. But now the situation is not very good because for economical, Japanese economy growth rate is not so very excellent. For the young ages actually, no choice. They have to be more challengeable than us.

Tim: I think so. We are seeing more challengers, more innovation and hopefully, things like a Lovot can reduce anxiety.

Kaname: Yeah. True, true. That could be good partner.

Tim: Well, listen Kaname, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

Kaname: Thank you very much. Thank you for having a good opportunity.

Outtro

And we’re back. 

I love that people are bringing their Lovots for play dates at the Lovot cafe. It really brings a Lovot to the same level of dogs where owners will use their pets as a proxy for themselves and build their own social interaction around their pets’ social interactions. 

I mean, there’s probably enough material here for a three or four psychology or sociology PhD dissertations but it’s far too deep, a dive for a Disrupting Japan outro. 

So, will this work, will this change the way we view pets or the way we view robots? Yeah, it might. In some ways, it already is. We just have to see if it scales. 

At this point, I don’t think the hurdle is that of the emotional connection between human and machine. We’ve seen that this works everywhere. I think the only real hurdle now is the social acceptance of people forming emotional connections with machines and those two things are very different.

Oh, and once we accept that, we have a different issue to deal with. Kaname mentioned that the Lovot was a better than a dog or a cat for an elderly owner but is it? I mean, obviously the Lovot is not alive but the whole point is that’s not supposed to matter. The whole point is that we have the same need to care, the same duty to care for a Lovot as we do for a dog or a cat. 

The Lovot clearly bonds with their owner. If the owner dies, would the Lovot be sad? Maybe not but would it behave in a way that the humans around it would interpret as sadness? Probably so and how would we humans deal with that? 

But Kaname’s basic idea is the correct one; we value machines that we need to take care of far more than the machines that take care of us. The implications of this were something we started exploring a few years back with the evocative machines project and due to my work at Google and other projects, I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I want to on that project but I’ll be updating it soon because it’s important. 

The metaphor of machines as pets rather than servants or, in the case of gig economy, as masters is an essential one. There is no question that our future mental health and our quality of life will depend on how we share our world with the machines we create. 

I think a world full of pets would be a much better place to live. 

 

If you want to talk more about our emotional connection to robots and I know you do, Kaname and I would love to hear from you. So, come by disruptingjapan.com/show181, and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment, I guarantee Kaname and I or maybe both will respond, and hey, if you get the chance, please follow us on LinkedIn or leave a review on iTunes or your podcast platform of choice or if you like the show, just like tell a friend about it. In this age of constant hype, an honest recommendation means a lot.

But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show. 

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.