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Awards Category: Business Founder/Owner

Kentaro Yoshifuji
Founder & CEO of Ory Laboratory

For a time when he was in school, Kentaro Yoshifuji was isolated from the world and tormented by acute loneliness; because of stress and illness, he could not leave his home or go to school for over three years. He became mentally and physically weak, fell behind in his studies and struggled with feelings of inferiority. Although he managed to lift himself out of the slump and went on to an engineering-focused high school where he won third place at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair for his unique wheelchair design, his childhood experiences followed him into adulthood. That’s why he decided to tackle the problem of loneliness – a condition which, left unattended, could lead to feelings of powerlessness, self-estrangement and depression – using the power of artificial intelligence to create OriHime, a first of its kind robot avatar.

Creating a Better Future

Kentaro’s vision is to eliminate human loneliness, and that’s exactly what his unique robot creation, OriHime, is designed to do. Although it is the result of advanced technology and artificial intelligence, Kentaro insists OriHime is not meant to create interactions between robots and humans, but facilitate connections between humans. This is rooted in his belief that healing only happens between people. OriHime is therefore neither a conversation partner nor something that plays with you or keeps you company; it is the alter-ego of the user with which they can be part of a daily activity, class or gathering. Equipped with a microphone, camera and speaker, OriHime simulates an experience of ‘being there’ for someone who is far away or unable to participate in daily activities, for instance, a child who has been hospitalised for a long time who misses his friends at school. Using a PC or smart device, a user can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the surroundings; in this case, the child can enjoy the feeling of chatting with friends, answering questions from the teacher, and learning like a normal schoolkid would. OriHime’s head and arms can also be moved by remote control, giving it a more life-like flavour.

While some have equated OriHime to a Skype call, Kentaro suggests that the lack of a monitor makes it completely different from a live chat – drawing from his childhood experience, he said that especially those who were hospitalised would not want anyone to be able to see them due to the ravages of their treatment. After a while, though, this lack of a monitor has led to many people interacting with it over a long period of time to remark that OriHime has started to look like a real person. This is partly because the expressionless ‘face’ of OriHime was inspired by traditional Japanese Noh masks, and this blankness creates the illusion that OriHime takes on many faces.

Another way OriHime has been used is to help the immobile continue to be socially active, especially those who are paralysed or unable to move about freely. It has empowered bed-bound, quarantined or non-able-bodied individuals to pursue their dreams, such as participating in meetings, taking lectures and even building a career, waking them up to the fact that they can play an active role in society.

Overcoming Obstacles

When he first started the company, very few people understood the concept, and there was little take-up for OriHime. For at least six months, Kentaro did not have any income, and survived through the help and generosity of his friends. Although there is wider acceptance for his concept now, Kentaro believes that continued engagement and education is necessary to ensure audiences understand the value of OriHime and its purpose in alleviating the effects of prolonged loneliness.

Measurable Outcomes

Kentaro has won several awards and accolades for his crusade against loneliness. He won the Most Outstanding Young Person’s Awards, was included in Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 2016 in Asia, recognised in AERA magazine as a top promising young leader, and is the Japanese representative for Stanford University’s E-Boot Camp.

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