August 04, 2016      

Two moments in a video featuring the robot Pepper, a humanoid from SoftBank Robotics Corp., illustrate the promise and worry surrounding the consumer-facing system.

In the video (see below), made during the 2016 CeBIT Global Conference, an interviewer interacts with Pepper and talks with Nicolas Boudot, SoftBank Robotics’ sales director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The clip opens with a clearly nervous Boudot monitoring how the sprite-like robot Pepper responds to questions on camera.

The executive looks like a father introducing his child to his boss, praying that the child sticks to the script about how much Dad loves his job. Boudot stands close behind the Pepper, and his fingertips never leave the machine’s gray and white shoulders. Except for quick glances at the interviewer, he stares at the top of the machine’s plastic skull.

Although Pepper is powerful — it reportedly can digest 800 pages of data per second and communicate intuitively with humans — few people have ever looked as relieved to be interviewed as does Boudot when the segment’s focus switches to him.

That’s one key moment. The other comes when the Pepper, which gazes upward at the interviewer throughout, raises its arms a bit as if it has something to add to what Boudot is saying. Although it actually says nothing, the interviewer glances down and smiles at it. He is being charmed by a robot.

That smile doubtlessly elicited a cheer from any advanced robotics engineers seeing the video. It proves that people can have bona fide relationships with humanoid electronics. But the industry’s own doubts are very close to the surface.

The demand for home robotics, at least for SoftBank systems in Japan, cannot be underestimated. The company announced the sale of 1,000 robot Peppers for consumers in June 2016, and they sold out in one minute. Many probably went to developers. Business deployments are almost as impressive, not to mention more likely because of cost.

Pepper helps customers, gathers business intelligence

In the CeBIT video, Boudot says there are a respectable 3,000 Peppers in stores in Japan, primarily greeting shoppers and helping with product recommendations. Not incidentally, they also are sharing insights about their retail experiences with store owners and SoftBank itself.

Nestle SA, which sells sophisticated hot beverage machines in Japan, has an unknown number of robot Peppers in some of its retail outlets. It wants to have at least one of them in 1,000 outlets this year.

Also in Asia, MasterCard Inc. and Yum! Brands Inc.’s Pizza Hut chain are working together on deploying Pepper as an electronic cashier in a handful of locations.

Pepper systems are due for store shelves in the U.S. and Europe by year’s end.

The retail product line — which is produced in Shandong, China, by SoftBank investor and Apple iPhone maker Foxconn Technology Group — is the vanguard for SoftBank’s Pepper for Biz campaign.

This initiative is a $19,300 rental program that comes with three years of service. That total likely includes the cost of product insurance and required data service, but it hasn’t yet been confirmed.

Robot Pepper gets smarter for new uses

On a deeper level, the Pepper is referred to as “an emotional robot.” It has been programmed to pick up on “tells” — facial expressions, voice changes, and hand gestures that convey emption — and to react sympathetically to them. All of those abilities are delivered by SoftBank’s own software.

Earlier this year, the company signed a deal integrating IBM’s Watson supercomputer software with Pepper’s own software. Both are open platforms, core software into which anyone can plug relevant applications that they have made.

SoftBank's robot Pepper could team up with IBM Watson to help patients.

The SoftBank robot Pepper holds the hand of a newborn baby next to his mother in Ostend, Belgium. Source: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

The SoftBank/IBM agreement is a big deal for both companies, because each of them needs to demonstrate the usefulness of their products to consumers and a wide range of businesses. IBM estimated earlier this year that 500 companies have bought at least one Pepper.

Pepper is already in use in train stations, on cruise ships, and in hospitals.

Separately, SoftBank says the Pepper platform will be compatible with Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system, an important bridge to a large U.S. technology constituency.

Yusuke Abe, a spokesman for SoftBank, said in an email that Watson will add to the Pepper’s capabilities, namely, “processing natural language … especially for the finance, call-center, medical and professional [sectors], which we don’t have in Pepper.”

Indeed, the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has been working with Watson to automate the dispensing of advice on cancer and some aspects of managing diabetes care. A small fleet of hospital Peppers cannot be far off.

Indeed, SoftBank executives have repeatedly said a healthcare edition of Pepper is in the works.

In the CeBIT video, Boudot says it will be four to five years before the robots are able to help people who are losing their autonomy, fetching a glass of water, reminding a person to take medicine, and the like.

More on the Robot Pepper and Service Robotics:

Second-guessing service robots

Time will tell if that is an optimistic assessment. In the meantime, Boudot is not the only one in the industry staring at the skulls of bots, uncertain of what they will say.

There are growing murmurs about overhyped marketing for conversational robots, a category that reaches from humanoid electronics to purely software automatons like chatbots. They are written to simulate, as closely as possible, one half of a conversation with a person.

Obviously, there is room for a lot of near-term growth for the evolving service robot Pepper and its rivals in the consumer and customer-service industries, but as information technology has proven again and again, great advances need to be approached with great caution.