A robot that simulates emotions was unveiled on a stage near Tokyo yesterday, interacting with its “father” and dancing and singing. Planned for wide Japanese availability, “Pepper” will be sold next year in the stores of its manufacturer, mobile phone giant Softbank. Pepper displays simulations of emotions through gestures, sound, movement, and eye expressions. Perhaps more significantly, it also reads the emotions of people nearby, listening to and recognizing voice tones and visual expressions.
In a YouTube video of the unveiling ceremony Pepper is seen on stage displaying a kind and gentle disposition. It interacts with Softbank founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Masayoshi Son and, in a memorable moment, the two reach out to each other in a tender Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Son hands Pepper its heart and Pepper proceeds to “place” the toy heart “into” its display-screen chest. In a news conference later, Son said “we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions.”
In the video, Pepper performs a celebratory “this is a moment of glory” song-and-dance routine. Although the music is without a beat, the mechanical person is obviously dancing in its own way, and the movement and articulation of its arms and torso are extraordinarily fluid, not showing the jerkiness usually stereotypical to robots.
Japan is likely the most logical place for the first widely available, emotion-simulating robot. The country is well-known for its culture of cute, known as “kawaii.” The price when it goes on sale next year will be approximately $1,900. The 62-pound, four-foot white robot is hairless and has two expressive, human-like eyes. The “eye sockets” glow and flash in various shades and subtle colors, simulating eye blinking and expressiveness in general. Pepper was developed by Aldebaran Robotics, which is majority owned by Softbank.
The richest man in Japan, Masayoshi Son told those in attendance that being in the business of personal robots has been his dream. The billionaire, whose net worth is currently $19.7 billion, also made history in 2000 when he achieved the distinction of losing the most money in history, $70 billion, in the dot-com crash. He has obviously recovered and now his company, Softbank, boasts 100 million global subscribers.
A large market for robots, especially in Japan, is forecast. That country’s population is aging rapidly and its well-below-replacement birth rate of 1.4 means there are fewer and fewer people to fulfill the practicalities the elderly require, such as health monitoring and safety. Robots are also envisioned to play a part in reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Pepper, and whatever new robots appear on the world stage, could possibly pay for themselves in households in need of an alternative to paying workers for the care of elderly relatives.
Pepper is not the first attempt to get an endearing robot into the Japanese mainstream. Sony, the entertainment and electronics company, pushed its robot dog, Aibo, for a time. Honda Motor Co. also made a noble attempt with its Asimo, which U.S. President Barack Obama recently threw a football with. Asimo, which looks like an Apollo astronaut, was too complex and expensive for the mainstream market and now appears at special events of Honda dealers. The founder and CEO of Aldebaran Robotics, Bruno Maisonnier, says that emotion-simulating robots “will create a new dimension in our lives.”
By Gregory Baskin