It’s hard to imagine that robots could take over 50 percent of jobs over the next 10 to 20 years, as some experts suggest. But a visit to the latest robot-staffed store in Tokyo provides a glimpse of what that mechanized future might look like.
Japanese mobile phone giant SoftBank is running the shop in the trendy Omotesando district as a trial. The small building is fronted by an enormous image of the humanoid robot Pepper, which SoftBank launched in 2015. Peppers “staff” the shop on three floors and they’re programmed to sell iPhone 6s phones and introduce a new electricity service from a SoftBank subsidiary.
The first floor is a reception area staffed by three Peppers standing by large touch-screen TVs. Visitors can look at information on various smartphones offered by SoftBank Mobile and try their hand at a video game where the prize is a plastic model of Pepper.
If visitors decide to buy an iPhone, they’re directed to the second floor, where the entire process of filling out an electronic contract is done at a screen in front of a Pepper stationed at a desk. When that’s complete, customers bring a QR code to another Pepper nearby, which scans it and transmits the data to a KUKA robot arm positioned next to it. The arm then removes a blue bag containing the iPhone from a rack on the wall and hands it to the customer. On the third floor, three Peppers put on a song and dance routine and tell jokes for customers waiting in line.
While the shop has been hyped as devoid of human workers, that’s not quite the case. There are about 10 Peppers working there and at least as many humans. Staffers are out in front inviting passersby to come in, and there’s one human on each floor keeping an eye on things. They’re also behind the scenes, stocking the iPhone bags and swapping out Peppers with run-down batteries.
Peppers dancing for waiting customers.
“Some 700 businesses are already using Pepper in various ways but we opened this shop to further explore its potential and to see how people react,” says Shohei Fujiwara of SoftBank Robotics. “We’ve had a very good response, with about 700 or 800 people a day coming to the store.”
Developed by SoftBank-owned Aldebaran Robotics of France, Pepper was put on sale last June for about 198,000 yen ($1,744) plus 24,600 yen in monthly data and insurance fees. Pepper sold out every month through December and users are roughly evenly split between individuals and businesses, according to SoftBank.
Pepper is equipped with a voice-recognition system, cloud connectivity and the ability to understand human emotions; about 200 apps have been created for it. Pepper has been “hired” by companies including Nestle Japan to sell coffeemakers and can be seen promoting products and services in Japanese electronics shops, trade shows and at Tokyo’s Haneda airport.
Indeed, Pepper has become an everyday sight in Tokyo. But it remains to be seen whether it will remain a mechanical pitchman or be able to “maximize people’s joy and minimize their sadness,” as SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said in 2014.