Like the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz, the robot community has finally found its heart. This time around it’s not made of sawdust-stuffed silk. Better — sensors, cameras, microphones and proprietary algorithms that calculate human emotion according to vocal intonation and facial expressions. And soon it could be ambling around your home, asking if you feel alright, after it goes on sale in Japan from February 2015 for 198,000 yen (£1,151.99).
Pepper is a Wi-Fi enabled humanoid robot that weighs 28kg, features a 10.1-inch touchscreen and can move at speeds of up to 3km/h. It’ll also only stay alert for 12 hours, before its Lithium-ion battery gives out. Pepper is the result of a collaboration between Japan’s SoftBank Mobile and Aldebaran Robotics, which specialises in the kind of touchy-feely humanoids not feted to bring down Earth in Hollywood movies. In a release, the companies branded it: “the world’s first personal robot that can read emotions.”
At a launch event, Bruno Maisonnier, Founder and CEO of Aldebaran — which Softbank already held a stake in — said: “For the past nine years, I’ve believed that the most important role of robots will be as kind and emotional companions to enhance our daily lives, to bring happiness, constantly surprise us, and make people grow. The emotional robot will create a new dimension in our lives and new ways of interacting with technology. It’s just the beginning, but already a promising reality.”
Pre-February 2015, anyone that wants to see that raw emotive sensitivity in action can do so at two Softbank stores in Tokyo, with the friendly robot being shipped further afield in the future.
Every element of the robot is built in order to blend more seamlessly into human life, with 20 motors designed to help it move its limbs, digits and body more naturally. It’s slated to be able to respond to its environment by reading what’s going on around it — including human emotion. It has an array of sensors to help achieve this, including four microphones, two cameras, a 3D sensor and three touch sensors in its head; a gyro sensor in its chest; two touch sensors in its hands; and two sonar sensors, six laser sensors, three “bumper” sensors; and a gyro sensor in its legs. Lots of sensors.
However, it’s not totally clear how it will prove that promised emotional sensitivity other than by making jokes and dancing. It’s likely, then, that every time your mouth has a downward turn, this bot will break into a jig to try and cheer you up. It’s promised, though, that the robot will “evolve by learning”, but again it’s unclear whether some kind of machine learning function is inbuilt. We do know it will be accessing a database for reference, from the cloud. The good news is developers can have a hand in this potentiality, with a kit being released so that complimentary apps can be built. More details on this will be announced during the tech festival in Tokyo, in September.
Cute is all well and good — Kirobo, of the famed awkward astronaut-robot International Space Station chat, is cute. But we live in a world where the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has developed a video surveillance system that watches the elderly in hospitals, so no human has to ever get up and check on them unless absolutely necessary. Yes we have a rapidly ageing population, and yes government health funding is being squeezed. So really we need to be seeking out robot helpers that will hopefully alleviate the burden, but always in a sensitive, non-creepy way. If that’s at all possible.
Masayoshi Son, Chairman and CEO of SoftBank, thinks it is. In a statement, he said: “Since foundation, we have followed our corporate philosophy of ‘Information Revolution — Happiness for everyone’. To realise our vision, we have made a new entry into the robot business with the aim of developing affectionate robots that make people smile. Using emotion engines and Cloud AI, which evolves with collective wisdom, we’re making this happen.”
*Also see http://youtu.be/fKaUXvJdyVE