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Why SoftBank's Pepper could become the iPhone of robots

Tim Hornyak | June 22, 2015
Pepper can't do housework, but it's a spearhead in the coming robotics wave.

Thanks to its "emotion engine," Pepper can recognize human feelings and simulate them. It can also learn new skills as it spends more time with users and connects through the SoftBank cloud to thousands of other Peppers.

Even in robot-mad Japan, which has a long history of helpful robots in science fiction as well as a popular fondness for cute characters, intelligent machines have failed on the consumer market. Sony pulled the plug on its Aibo robot dog in 2006 after selling about 150,000 units globally. Around the same time, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launched a humanoid robot, Wakamaru, that resembled Pepper in terms of its appearance, AI abilities and hardware. At about $14,000, it was a flop.

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, though, sees Foxconn's high-tech manufacturing prowess in making Apple devices and Alibaba's vast e-commerce distribution reach as a game-changing partnership for robots. They plan to launch sales outside Japan sometime in 2016.

"Alibaba sold 70,000 Ecovac robotic vacuums on Singles Day in China," Frank Tobe, a robotics investor who tracks the industry on his website The Robot Report, said via email, referring to a shopping day in November that's popular with young singles. "Peppers are perfect Singles Day gifts -- if they speak Chinese."

Pepper has the ability to speak Japanese, English, Spanish and French, and more languages are planned, along with dozens more apps. SoftBank is hoping that consumers will fall for Pepper's synthetic emotions and AI, accepting it as a member of the family, and overlook its shortcomings when it comes to housework. Meanwhile, the company plans to focus on enterprise applications for Pepper starting this fall.

Many businesses in Japan are interested in buying a Pepper or two to try it out, said Tadaaki Mataga, an IT infrastructure analyst with Gartner in Tokyo who sees the robot as a powerful stimulant for a nascent market.

Pepper has already worked at electronics shops to help sell mobile phones and coffee machines in Japan. Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies in California, notes that major retailers such as home-improvement chain Lowe's are experimenting with various robotic platforms that can guide customers around stores.

"There's definitely a business case to be made in that capacity," Bajarin said.

Pepper may be the closest thing to a science-fiction robot butler that is also a real product, but living up to that ideal will take a long time. There are a lot of expectations riding on its shoulders. How does Pepper "feel" about this responsibility? A quip it made at its consumer launch Thursday seemed to sum it up: "Please don't play with my emotions."


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