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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.

Although Pepper might understand if you ask it to clean the dishes or sweep the floor, it won't comply: It only has 20 motors and would likely have difficulty picking up delicate objects.

Pepper will debut at two SoftBank Mobile stores in Tokyo on Friday. From next year, it will initially be sold in SoftBank stores in Japan and through online channels. Overseas sales will follow at some point, Son said, and Pepper's emotional expressions will be customized to fit various cultures. So far, Pepper can speak English, Japanese, French and Spanish. More languages are expected in the next few months.

Softbank is not aiming for initial profitability with Pepper, and is offering it at a relatively low price compared to most robotic technologies in order to popularize it.

Pepper owners could be charged a monthly fee for cloud-based services but that has yet to be decided, Son said. Future applications or content provided through the robot could be an additional source of revenue.

If Foxconn manufactures thousands or a million Peppers, costs would fall, and the business could move toward profitability, Son said.

Lem Fugitt, a robotics observer who runs Robots-Dreams.com, said, "Pepper will have a very difficult time getting off the ground as a viable consumer product -- the demand and compelling need just isn't there yet."

"Everyone seems surprised at the lowball price point. I'm assuming that it has to be coupled with some data subscription model, so $1,980 is only a starting figure. They have to be targeting a long-term revenue stream that locks customers in, just like they do with smartphones," he added.

Other multinational Japanese companies, such as Honda, Sony and Toyota, have developed sophisticated humanoid robots, but none has successfully commercialized them due to their high cost, lack of useful functions and limitations to AI.

SoftBank has established a cloud services company called Cocoro SB for Pepper's cloud AI functions. SDKs (software development kits) will be provided for developers to open up a wide range of apps for the robot.

The debut of Pepper is the realization of a 25-year dream for Son, as the CEO recounted how he was inspired by Astro Boy, a popular science fiction robot created by manga artist Osamu Tezuka in the early 1950s. The heroic machine became a template for friendly humanoid robots in Japan, both in fiction and reality.

"Pepper is a baby step in making robots with emotion," Son said. "Our vision is to create affectionate robots than understand people's feelings and then autonomously take action. So the joy of a family will become the joy of the robot."

 

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