Pepper: A robot to watch you sleep

Last year Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank unveiled its new humanoid robot Pepper (ペパー). It is being promoted as the “first robot that can read human emotions,” but could it become the first humanoid robot to be commercially viable?

Article by Michael Shea | 23 Sep 2015

Last year Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank unveiled its new humanoid robot Pepper (ペパー). Pepper is equipped with face and voice recognition capabilities that allow it to respond to the users emotional state, as demonstrated in its creepy promotional video. It is being presented as a social robot, one that will “help people grow” and “facilitate relationship[s]” rather than provide any practical assistance.

Pepper was created by Aldebaran, the French robotics company behind NAO, which took over from Sony’s AIBO as the go-to device for public robotics demonstrations (the RoboCup Soccer League, Shanghai World Expo etc). Aldebaran was acquired by Softbank in 2012.

Speaking at a press conference Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son modestly declared: “100 years, 200 years or 300 years from now, people will probably recall today as a historic day in which computers changed.” This unbridled optimism aside, robots are invariably promoted as the first to be able to do one thing or another. Pepper is billed as both the “first robot that can read human emotions” and the “first humanoid robot designed to live with humans.” But arguably the most headline worthy title would be if it were to become the first humanoid robot to become commercially viable.

The robot most readily comparable to Pepper is Honda’s ASIMO. An acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, ASIMO is the result of 20 years of intensive research. ASIMO has the appearance of a small person in a space suit and can run at 6km/h, recognize objects, faces and sounds and can perform tasks based on predetermined commands.

Like Pepper, ASIMO sponsored by a Japanese tech giant and was promoted as a social companion robot. Like Pepper ASIMO was given a nonthreatening uncanny valley-safe appearance and a gender-neutral childlike voice. Both also do cute things such as dancing, bowing and wisecracking as part of their demo spiel.

Yet there are important differences. It took nearly two decades of intensive research to give ASIMO the ability to walk. Yet in creating Pepper the engineers sidestepped this challenge entirely by giving it a simple wheelbase with autobalance.

Aldebaran justifies the device’s functional limitations in terms of its intended use as a social robot: “He's an emotional robot, not a functional robot for domestic use with dishwasher or vacuum cleaner functionalities. Pepper will help people grow, enhance their life, facilitate relationships, he will have fun with them, give some services and connect them with the outside world.”

In another section of its website they really drive this point home: “At the risk of disappointing you, he doesn't clean, doesn't cook and doesn't have super powers... Pepper is a social robot able to converse with you, recognize and react to your emotions, move and live autonomously.”

Unlike ASIMO, Roomba or even Henry the Hoover, Pepper is unlikely to be much help with the housework. But the emphasis on the robots intended use as a facilitator of social interaction is a novel approach. Softbank is a mobile communications company and it is expected that they will eventually offer downloadable updates, applications and features for Pepper in addition to charging a monthly fee for use of the cloud service.

It is interesting that recent developments in android science have tended towards creating social robots, considering the widely held view that the ability to understand emotion and to communicate with humans is the greatest challenge in artificial intelligence.

For example the Turing Test, the famous method for testing machine intelligence that was proposed by Alan Turing in 1950, is based on the assumption that imitating human interaction would be such a great challenge that any device which was capable of doing so must be genuinely intelligent.

The test takes the form of a game played by three people. The interrogator stays in a room that is separate from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is a man (A) and which is a woman (B). One participant is supposed to fool and the other to try and assist the investigator.  Messages are typed on sheets of paper and transferred by an intermediary.

Turing believed that if a machine assumed the part of either A or B in this game and was able to fool the investigator, it could be considered genuinely intelligent. Alarming news for anyone who’s been fooled by an automated email or IM scam.

So perhaps the intention behind creating a purely social robot such as Pepper is not such a cop out after all. If the robot were to become a device that is able to successfully converse with and gauge the emotional state of its user this would require a more nuanced imitation of human behaviour than something relatively simple such as walking, or playing football, as many robots already do.

The first 1000 units of Pepper will go on sale in Japan at the end of August. Priced at JPY198,000 (£1045) for the base unit in addition to a monthly fee for access to the cloud service it remains to be seen whether Pepper will be another android for tech show hype or a genuinely viable product.

If Softbank can convince enough people to let Pepper into their homes it will represent a significant milestone in the development of companion robots. It remains to be seen how people will respond to a robot can’t cook or clean but instead asks how you’re feeling and watches you sleep.