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SoftBank's humanoid robot Pepper knows how you're feeling

Tim Hornyak | June 6, 2014
This US$1900 robot is powered by love, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son says.

If the thought of a humanoid robot in your home makes your skin crawl, meet the friendly Pepper.

Pepper is a cute, wisecracking personal robot designed to bring joy to everyone, and Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank wants people to start buying it next year for the price of a high-end PC.

The phone giant unveiled the autonomous, sophisticated machine on Thursday along with partners Aldebaran Robotics of France and China's Foxconn, the world's largest manufacturer of electronics.

Equipped with an array of audio, visual and tactile sensors, Pepper is 120 centimeters tall and weighs about 28 kg. It has two arms and rolls around on a wheeled base, with a lithium-ion battery that can power it for at least 12 hours.

Its chest bears a 10.1-inch touchscreen that can be used to communicate along with its voice and gestures. Its main function is to interact with people, according to SoftBank.

"We want to have a robot that will maximize people's joy and minimize their sadness," SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son told a press conference outside Tokyo.

The event began with a darkened stage and several minutes of theatrics as Son presented Pepper with a heart-shaped object. The robot then began interacting with him with a high-pitched voice, and then introduced itself to journalists in Japanese.

Pepper is the world's first personal robot that can read people's emotions, Son said, and it uses voice-recognition technology and proprietary algorithms to analyze people's feelings from their facial expressions and tone of voice.

It will go on sale in Japan in February 2015 with a base price of ¥198,000 (US$1,929).

In a series of pre-programmed demonstrations on stage, Pepper bantered with Son and Japanese celebrities. Its head and arms moved smoothly as it rolled around, though at one point it failed to respond to a question and seemed to go blank for a bit.

Pepper doesn't have 100 percent recognition of what people say to it, Son admitted, adding it will improve with time.

Its NAOqi operating system, a nod to Aldebaran's pint-sized Nao robot, has an "emotion engine" as well as cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) to help it understand people and respond to them.

"With cute robots, so cute that people want them at home, very easy to interact with and which are connected to the Internet, look at this potential we are opening," said Aldebaran CEO Bruno Maisonnier. "Many things can be done to improve education, healthcare, entertainment, flow management, you name it."

Robots will greatly change people's daily lives just like the PC, Internet and mobile phones did in the past, added the head of Aldebaran, which is owned about 78 percent by SoftBank.

 

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