July 22, 2016      

SoftBank Group Corp. has made some big moves around robotics, including expanding usage of its Pepper robot, working with Honda Motor Co. on artificial intelligence, and bidding on chip maker ARM Holdings PLC.

Pepper was created by Paris-based Aldebaran SA, which is now known as SoftBank Robotics, a subsidiary of Tokyo-based SoftBank Group.

The “empathic” robots are different from the traditional robots used in commercial and business applications — though they can be used for those applications as well. Pepper is able to interpret people’s facial expressions and vocal tones and respond to emotions.

From greeting customers in Nescafe stores to helping with ordering pizza, these robots are quickly spreading worldwide and demonstrating their flexibility. It is already used in over 700 businesses; there are approximately 10,000 Pepper robots in existence — many in Japan.

Pepper helps people order pizza

SoftBank’s Pepper is helping MasterCard customers order pizzas in Asia.

Ordering from Pizza Hut with Pepper robot

MasterCard recently unveiled an app allowing Pepper to connect consumers with merchants via its global digital payment service. This will enable consumers to expedite payments quickly and easily across multiple channels and devices.

Pizza Hut Restaurants Asia P/L will be the first e-commerce partner working with MasterCard to create innovative customer engagement with the Pepper robot.

“Core to our digital transformation journey is the ability to make it easier for customers to engage, connect, and transact with Pizza Hut,” said Vipul Chawla, managing director of Pizza Hut Restaurants Asia. “With an order- and payment-enabled Pepper, customers can now come to expect personalized ordering at our stores, reduce wait time for carryout, and have a fun, frictionless user experience.”

Social robots full of potential

It’s not just banks — but also your local hospital.

In two Belgian hospitals, the robot can take patients to their destinations. Pepper can help relieve children’s anxiety about being in a hospital, particularly when they face scheduled surgery.

The Pepper robot is close to their own height at about 4 feet tall. It has three omnidirectional wheels for quick mobility, a 3D camera, and a 10-in. touch screen.

The robots — and potentially, other humanoids — are capable of doing much more. You can even see an interview with Pepper on YouTube.

The robot sells smartphones to customers in Tokyo and is going aboard cruise ships to assist guests. In France, Pepper helps passengers get on trains, and it assists shoppers at supermarkets throughout Europe.

In Tokyo, Pepper actually counsels residents of a halfway house for substance abusers.

Asimo and Pepper robots

SoftBank and Honda are working together on AI research.

Pepper befriends Asimo

Honda Motor Co.’s Asimo has been walking, dancing, and climbing stairs since 1996. This week, Honda and SoftBank said they’re working together on robotic systems that will be able to communicate better with users.

Unlike some other automakers, which claim that self-driving cars are coming soon, Honda wants humans to remain engaged with robotic vehicles.

Honda’s Cocoro SB unit is opening an artificial intelligence laboratory in Tokyo in September.

Other Japanese carmakers are also pursuing autonomous vehicles and robots, including Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. The latter company is spending $1 billion on research in the U.S.

Pepper’s “empathic” programming is likely to be involved. A combination of Asimo’s bipedal agility and Pepper’s social capabilities could be a step forward for humanoid robots.

SoftBank bids on ARM

SoftBank has offered $32 billion for Cambridge, England-based ARM Holdings. ARM produces the processors in most of the world’s smartphones including Apple Inc.’s iPhone, and it is the largest technology company in the U.K.

Some analysts viewed the offer as a way to keep up with and respond to chip makers Intel Corp., Qualcomm Inc., and Nvidia Corp., which are interested in new markets beyond PCs and smartphones.

However, some Japanese investors and market analysts disapproved of the deal, so it may not go forward.

“To us, the ARM acquisition … appears largely inconsistent with SoftBank’s investment strategy,” said Atul Goyal, an analyst at Jefferies LLC. “It does not inspire much confidence and requires deeper review.”

More on the Pepper Robot and Other Humanoids:

Pepper is coming to America

SoftBank plans to bring the Pepper robot to the U.S. this year, with developers gaining access this month. SoftBank also said that Pepper will support Google’s Android with a beta version of its software development kit.

One of SoftBank Robotics’ other robots, Nao, has been a concierge at a Hilton Hotel in Northern Virginia, answering guests’ general questions. Nao is expected to be replaced by Pepper before the end of 2016.

Compared with industrial robotic arms, aerial drones, or surgical robots, humanoid robots are still catching up. However, technology is advancing rapidly, as are applications for social robots.

The Pepper robot is symbolic of a new class of social robots, such as Blue Frog Robotics SAS’s Buddy and the long-awaited Jibo, that can serve people in a wide range of applications.

With Pepper, we’re seeing the advent of (sometimes) more humanoid robots that perform cognitive functions as well as physical ones. The robots cost range from a low of $2,000 to a higher $32,000 with more advanced functionality.

Androids such as Pepper are coming of age and could soon be part of the landscape in Asia, Europe, and finally the U.S.

When and if a robot appears again on Jeopardy, it won’t just be IBM’s Watson as in 2011. Next time, watch for Pepper. When and how Pepper and Watson will work together is unknown, as is Pepper’s full potential.