June 10, 2014      

With its huge eyes, empathic abilities and overall adorable presence, Pepper the new humanoid robot may remind some of Astro Boy, the robot hero from anime, films, TV and video games.

Pepper lacks super strength and can’t fly like Astro Boy, cautions creator Aldebaran Robotics, but Pepper is meant to be a hero in its own domestic way. Pepper can speak and express emotions and appropriately respond – make jokes, dance, rap – to the speech and emotions of humans.

Pepper’s abilities are based on a proprietary algorithm, and Aldebaran hopes Pepper will be a big seller in Japan starting in February 2015 for 198,000 yen ($1,900). As far as taking Pepper international, nothing has been decided at this point, but other markets are under consideration, a company spokesman says.

Aldebaran declined comment about the size of the specific target markets and would not release any sales projections, adding that the price is “much more affordable for the average consumer than that of competitors’ similar products.”

Aldebaran created Pepper for what is essentially its parent company, SoftBank, a major Japanese mobile carrier. SoftBank CEO and founder Masayoshi Son, one of Japan’s top business leaders, has long been interested in robotics. SoftBank had a banner year, doubling sales with numerous other positive indicators.

Pepper Learns to React

SoftBank says Pepper, which stands under four feet tall and weighs 62 pounds, “resonates with you” and “learns as you talk to him” via voice-recognition and voice-feedback software. SoftBank also predicts Pepper will “enhance our lives in the same way that the Internet, computers and mobile did.” Pepper uses cloud computing to learn about its surroundings and sends the interaction mechanics to remote servers.

“Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile,” says Son at a recent demonstration, according to the India Economic Times.

Aldebaran said, “Right now, Pepper is able to speak English, French, Japanese and Spanish. In the next few months, new languages will be available on the Aldebaran Store.”

Pepper is a new and improved product developed by a company known since 2005 for humanoid robots. Aldebaran’s Nao robot, of which thousands have been made, has been available for years in a choice of colors.

Pepper features more than a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three touch sensors on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base. It also has a tablet on its chest, two cameras and four microphones on its head and Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking capabilities.

Pepper will have 12 hours of battery life.

Friendly competition

“The potential is great for intelligent machines as the number of elderly requiring care is expected to soar in rapidly-aging Japan in coming years,” notes the Times. “Robotics are already used to check on the elderly and monitor their health and safety, but they might also play a role in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.”

Cuddly robots are not new in Japan; after all, this is the nation that created Hello Kitty, just one well-known commercial example of its relentless “kawaii” or “cute” cultural phenomenon. How successful Pepper will be remains to be seen, but as the Times notes, “no companion robot has emerged a major market success yet.”

From a business standpoint, perhaps the key to success lies in the size of the company producing and promoting Pepper. “SoftBank, which now owns Sprint in the USA and boasts more than 100 million subscribers globally, has been growing rapidly as a mobile carrier in Japan, boosted by being the first to offer Apple’s iPhone,” the Times notes.

If and when Pepper ventures across the Pacific Ocean, it’s possible that he will get some friendly — of course! — competition from Jimmy, a humanoid robot from Intel that can be 3D printed. Jimmy will reportedly be released earlier in America (by September 2014) than Pepper and will cost less ($1,600). Jimmy was announced at around the same time and is from a David to SoftBank’s Goliath – Trossen Robotics.

While Jimmy is not emotionally enhanced and can’t speak, he can do some things Pepper can?t, such as pick himself up should he fall down, much like a child.

Let the best humanoid robot win!