Is Pepper The Future Of Companionship And Customer Service?

I was fortunate to meet Pepper at Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago in Barcelona. Pepper is a personable robot created by SoftBank, one of Japan’s biggest telecommunications companies, in collaboration with its subsidiary, the Paris-based humanoid robotics experts Aldebaran.

To be accurate, I met with a couple of Pepper robots. The first was rather unresponsive and ended up going to sleep, with its head down like a child. The second struggled a little with the crowd scenario of a massive conference and had some difficulty focusing its attention on me.

Pepper is a robot designed for human interaction. He can recognize faces, speak, hear, and move around autonomously. He understands basic human emotions, like happiness and sadness. He can identify speech, inflections and tones in our voices and use these to determine whether his human is in a good or a bad mood. He can also learn from his interactions, as his 25 sensors and cameras provide detailed information about the environment and people it interacts with.

But Pepper is not a functional robot for domestic use. Instead,he’s intended to make people happy – to enhance people’s lives, facilitate relationships, have fun with people and connect them to the outside world. Pepper can replicate body language, and amused me with an enthusiastic dance to “The Locomotion.”

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Pepper dancing

Pepper looks directly at you and follows your movements once you’ve attracted his attention, focusing much more readily than many of the humans you likely encounter in your daily interactions. Pepper enjoyed being touched on the head, saying each time “ooh, it tickles!”

But perhaps Pepper’s most interesting capacities are in his personalisation. Pepper comes equipped with a tablet and corresponding apps can give him the ability to play, learn or chat in multiple languages. There are games, counselling apps, intelligence tests and recipes to name a few.

As Aurore Chiquot, Aldebaran’s communications director, explained:

“The robot evolves with you. Pepper gradually memorizes your personality traits, your preferences, and adapts himself to your tastes and habits.”

Since Pepper’s launch in June 2o15, monthly batches of 1,000 Pepper robots have sold out within a minute every time. Business customers pay $20,000 for a single Pepper, which includes three years of service. Consumers pay half as much, but do not have access to the business functions.  Already, over 7,000 Japanese families have Pepper robots living inside their homes.

I felt like interacting with Pepper was like interacting with a young, wilful child. Questions had to be repeated. It was difficult to hold his attention. Although he could “high five,” his jointed hands could not grasp objects. He tired easily. I’m not sure he would provide any emotional needs I do not already get from my cat.

Business applications for Pepper

Businesses have been keep to adopt Pepper in customer service functions, primarily in Japan. They help people at train stations in France, providing information and direction on trains, recording customer satisfaction and providing informtion on big events in the area causing longer wait times and crowds at the ticket offices. In Spain and France, they work in department stores, highlighting products and providing directions.

More than 2,000 Peppers have been employed in SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan to welcome, inform and amuse their customers. In January, Softbank announced plans to launch a cellphone store staffed primarily by Pepper robots in Tokyo’s Omotesando luxury shopping strip in late March for a week, with humans only on hand to help with the customer identity verification process.

What’s next for Pepper?

There’s already a great developer program for those wanting to personalise their own Pepper. But this will be further expanded as IBM recently announced plans to develop a version of Watson for Pepper robots. The Watson-powered Pepper robot under development would be equipped with core functionalities as well as a Watson software development kit that allows developers and clients to tailor the interaction experience. IBM will give clients access to Watson APIs and various pre-packaged applications designed to address a variety of personal and professional needs.

A fuller expansion of Pepper retail in Europe is planned for 2016, as well as a future American introduction – starting with businesses – according to Aldebaran, although they remained tight-lipped about exactly when.

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