The first ever robot astronaut has finished an 18-month stint on board the International Space Station (ISS) and has now returned to Earth for a new mission: to keep people company.

The Kibo Robot Project, set up in Japan around three years ago, is hoping that its robots can be used to better understand the relationship between robots and humans, with the eventual aim of providing complete companions for humans living increasingly isolated lives.

"The project itself is a sort of giant project," Yorichika Nishijima, a senior robotics designer at Dentsu, told IBTimes UK. "The ultimate goal of the project is to develop robots which could support people and to develop the environment where robots and human beings can co-exist. I see robots coming into people's lives in five to 10 years, especially for the purpose of supporting the elderly or infirm in their daily lives."

Robots on Mars

The Kibo Robot Project originally formed from a collaboration between the University of Tokyo, Toyota, Robo Garage and Dentsu.

As a result, two identical humanoid robots - Kirobo and Mirata - were developed, each featuring voice and facial recognition, as well as natural language processing to allow them to understand and communicate with humans.

After a period of tests and experiments, one of the robots was sent up to join Japanese astronaut Wakata Koichi aboard the ISS.

While aboard the ISS, the robot astronaut was able to "observe" certain operations, however its functionality meant that its role as a companion was limited to short conversations with Wakata. As artificial intelligence technology advances it is hoped that robots such as these could be used on more long-term space missions.

"A robot would be utilised more in long-distance missions like on a journey to Mars," Nishijima said. "It would be used to support the astronauts because sometimes a loss of signal occurs, and in that case the astronaut needs to have a companion or friend to talk to."

Romantic robots

Nigel Morris, CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network Americas and EMEA, believes that despite becoming more connected with each other in a digital sense, people are in fact increasingly alone. To combat this he claims that robot companions - and potentially even partners - are inevitable.

"Certainly I think that robot companions are inevitable," Morris told IBTimes UK at Advertising Week Europe. "27% of people in the US now live alone, 34% of people in the UK live alone and I think it's around 50% in London.

"The more connected we are in an interconnected world, the more we actually are in a physical sense living alone. Whether or not people are going to have relationships with them - there are certain physical limitations with that maybe.

"One of the key messages is that we have to be really open minded about that, we can't judge that from where we stand at the moment but we have to be part of it and understand how those things develop."