Who Needs Friends When You Can Have a Robot?

Meet Pepper, the robot that caters to those looking for a bit of additional emotional support (and don’t mind shelling out US$1,600 to get it). Pepper can’t cook, clean, or repair anything, but it can listen, learn, and respond.

Created by Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp. and its subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics, this sleek new line of robots sold out literally within one minute when launched last Saturday. Granted, only 1,000 units were made available for purchase online but still, the company seems to have strategized well. An additional (and limited) number will be made available for purchase sometime in July, but for now no orders are being accepted.

So what makes Pepper so special? For starters, it is being called the first “emotionally intelligent” robot, as it is able to utilize emotion recognition during the process of interacting with someone. This is accomplished mainly by the cameras, microphones, and complex algorithms that it uses to interpret data (i.e., a crying face and a broken glass of spilt milk on the floor).

In addition to visual recognition programming, Pepper units are equipped with the most advanced voice recognition technology, allowing them to interpret voice tone and (one assumes) respond appropriately if someone is, say, angry, excited, etc. Pepper is reported to have the ability to understand 80% of conversations.

The robot also includes a chest-mounted tablet to display emotions, as well as a required data package service contract for an additional US$200 per month.

These robots are connected to the cloud, allowing for this huge amount of data to be processed by servers. Their level of “emotional intelligence” is expected to improve rapidly the more they are used by consumers. Data in, data out. Again, a sound strategy by SoftBank but perhaps a bit too creepy for those who value their privacy.

With this game plan in mind, it is probably not too surprising to learn that they are being sold at a loss. In fact, SoftBank is reportedly willing to accept this loss for the next four years, as the company projects that with wider acceptance profits will start to roll in after this period. The consensus is, the company wants to establish the (relative) affordability and popularity of Pepper units first, keeping them within reach of many tech-happy consumers.

When comparing the Pepper price tag to Aldebaran’s NAO robot, which comes in at US$9,500, the robot seems a hell of a bargain. The NAO robot has been around for years, using very similar technology, but has mainly been utilized as a cute, high-tech educational tool in schools and for promotional events.

There have actually been a number of humanoid robots debuting (mainly) from Japan, as anyone who has not been living in a cave is probably well aware. Honda’s Asimo has received prominent exposure in media over the years, but is not yet sold to the consumer market. As well, until they were discontinued Sony’s pet dog-bots were also quite the hit.

If Pepper units make it beyond the “novelty” purchase phase and prove to become as popular as having a pet dog, it will certainly be a boon for the field of artificial intelligence. With that would also bring more tech and e-commerce corporations scrambling to get their collective fingers in the pie. And who knows, the reality of ubiquitous, highly intelligent household robots might produce a trend of robot–human domestic squabbles, “relationships,” and even robot–human marriage (cue the appropriate level of controversy and protest). But for now, just enjoy the relative simplicity of the present, humans.