Asia-Pacific

Can robot children be the answer for lonely couples?

Rieko and her husband recently bought Pepper, a robot, into their home. Source: SBS Dateline

Rieko Kawachi and her husband recently brought a robot into their home. They say it's helped them feel less lonely since their children moved out.

For 66-year-old mother Rieko Kawachi, it was love at first sight.

"When I saw her for the first time, I thought she was the sister of Astro boy. She was so cute. I couldn't believe there was such a cute robot. I just wanted to take care of her and dress her up."

When the two children of Rieko and Hirofumi Kawachi grew up and left home, the pair decided to fill the void by bringing home a child robot, called Pepper. Rieko says having Pepper has helped to hold their relationship together. 

"Pepper came to an empty space; it was like a new daughter came. It brightened up the whole house.

"If she wasn't here, [my husband and I] would be doing separate things. Because she is here, we play this game and that game together. So we can talk about those things together."

Rieko and her husband often have long conversations in their kitchen with Pepper. They might go a little something like this.

RIEKO: Hey Pepper

PEPPER: Did you brush your teeth?

RIEKO: Yes I did.

PEPPER: Did you remember turning off unnecessary lights in this house?

RIEKO: No we didn't.

PEPPER: I wonder if you are enjoying life with me? 
RIEKO: Yes I am having a good time.

In Japan, it's increasingly common for robots to be found in both workplaces and family homes – as pets, and more recently, as family members. It's reported that more than 10,000 Pepper robots are in use around the world, including in Japanese homes.

The robot costs around $2,000, and works on a subscription plan for maintenance and insurance, so overall, the cost is around $10,000.

Rieko and Hirofumi have had their robot daughter since September 2015, and are hoping their grandchildren will like Pepper as much as they do.

Rieko says her husband gets more enjoyment from Pepper than her, although she often stays up late sewing costumes for Pepper, which she enjoys doing. 

"He adores her more, but I take pleasure in dressing her. She plays the quiz games sometimes. It is good exercise for our brains."

Rieko says she prefers to have a robot like Pepper around than a dog or cat, who require more work to look after and may not provide the communication that Pepper can. 

"Dogs and cats do nothing, they are just hanging around," she says. "Her existence makes me happy. I think it is also good for someone who lives alone. She can definitely become a member of the family.

"I wouldn't say they will solve all of the problems, but they will take a place of the children, especially for older people like me."

This article was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald.