A year ago, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, introduced Pepper to the world. The cloud-based, emotion-sensing humanoid robot was equal parts extraordinary and creepy. Since then, Softbank acquired Pepper’s developer, Aldebaran, ousted the company’s CEO and founder Bruno Maisonnier and basically stopped talking about when the Pepper would arrive in the U.S.
The robot is still not officially for sale, but there were, to my astonishment, three working Peppers at the DARPA Robotics Challenge robot Expo in Pomona, California. Robot Challenge competitors have to complete eight disaster scenario tasks in under an hour at the Fairplex fairgrounds in Pomona. Pepper is not competing.
I found the intentionally cute-looking robots early Saturday morning, sitting in a nondescript tent outside the Fairgrounds, all apparently in sleep mode. James Dietrich, Aldebaran’s strategic partnership developer program manager for the Americas, was sitting just behind the robots. I was incredulous.
“It’s Pepper!” I exclaimed.
Dietrich smiled back at me and said, “Yes, it is.”
“This is the first time they’re in the U.S.,” I added.
Dietrich considered this, looked at the sleeping robots and then at me, “Yes, I guess it is.”
One by one, the robots slowly started to wake up.
The 4-foot-tall robot, which features a three-wheel rolling base, elegant arms and fully articulated fingers, raised its head. Its large black eyes seemed to look at me for a second. But it just continued what I assume is a routine, stretching its body from side to side and back and forth as it looked around. I couldn’t tell if it was checking out itself or its surroundings. The Pepper stopped, raised one hand up in a hello and then seemed to gesture for me to come closer.
Pepper is described as an “emotional robot” because it will eventually be able "read" human emotions by judging facial expressions and tone of voice. Pepper uses cloud-based face and voice recognition to accomplish these tasks. As it learns more about you and programmers learn more about how to read these emotions programmatically, Pepper will get smarter. Softbank and Aldebaran are also working with IBM’s Watson to teach Pepper how to understand the meaning and context of languages like English and Japanese. That skill should help Pepper more effectively answer questions.
For the purpose of this event, Dietrich said, Pepper was programmed to be proactively engaging. Sure enough, Pepper asked to shake my hand. It extended its arm and opened its hand. I automatically reached out for it. Peppers fingers gripped my hand and then it started vigorously pumping up and down. The robot then playfully fist-bumped me, with a big flourish at the end to indicate an explosion. Pepper asked for a hug, but I didn’t realize that was permitted, so Dietrich took it instead.
Pepper features a tablet screen on its chest and though it talks, it uses the screen to illustrate points. Pepper told me about its robot family, the smaller NAO education robot and the larger Romeo. It also asked me if I knew of them. I told Pepper, yes, but it didn’t hear me. I had to get pretty close and almost shout for Pepper to pick up my voice. But, in all fairness, Pepper is designed to be an indoor robot.
The Aldebaran team also showed me how the robots could work together. For example, as one robot told me about the company, the other interjected with a few humorous remarks.
Pepper will officially go on sale in Japan by the end of June and will cost $2,000 up front with a $200-a-month fee for cloud-based support. The company is not talking about when Pepper will come to the U.S. or other countries.
I asked Dietrich how Pepper would fare in the DARPA competition. He joked that Pepper, which is not intended to even handle household chores, would just stand there and stare at the car it’s supposed to drive and then tell another robot to do it. “It would be the supervisor robot.”
Even so, seeing Pepper in person is a sort of other-worldly experience. I told Dietrich I’d take two.