Pepper: New Best Friend or Intrusive Weirdo?

At Google’s I/O conference last month, Japanese telecom firm SoftBank announced that their humanoid robot, “Pepper”, will now support Android as a developer platform. Within this announcement, SoftBank also introduced an Android software development kit in and confirmed that they will be opening a San Francisco in order to attract developers to further Pepper’s capabilities. Following the announcement, USA Today spoke with Steve Carlin, Vice President of SoftBank Robotics Americas, who referred to Pepper as an “unfinished product” and would like to see the Android SDK, “expand the ways in which people can engage with a humanoid robot”.

I first became aware of Pepper a few months ago when I came across this video. Within the clip, Laura Bokobza, Chief Marketing Officer of Aldebaran Robotics (a company that SoftBank has a controlling interest in), describes Pepper as an, “interactive social robot” that, “[will] propose games so that people get together more or take a picture of your kid while you’re not at home”. Pepper is then shown challenging a human to a breath-holding contest. After a few seconds, Pepper quips, ” since I don’t need to breathe, I can’t lose!” My takeaway from this video is that Pepper is: 

  1. a meddler who will call you out for being anti-social
  2. a potential liability around children
  3. would love nothing more than to see the life leave your eyes.

It was…intriguing?

All jokes aside, SoftBank markets Pepper not as dish-washing, floor-sweeping domestic bot, but a companion to make you happy, connect with humans and facilitate relationships. Yet so far, Pepper’s deployment into the world of humans seems to contradict these claims. Recently, Pepper’s have appeared in Japanese Pizza Huts to take orders and at two Belgian hospitals to greet, direct and offer support. These placements, however, are likely just marketing tactics which have definitely worked. Starting in June 2015, SoftBank launched 1,000 units for sale in Japan (for about $1600, plus $200 for monthly data and insurance fees) and sold out in under a minute. Same for July, August, September, October and November. Clearly a lot of people have use for a personal robot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pepper recently because it’s about to arrive in the US (and our own Tom Lynch recently gave it the up vote on Digital Shoptalk). Though there’s no specific release date yet, SoftBank expects Pepper to launch here later this year, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Bots like Pepper, as well as voice-activated technology such as Cortona, Amazon Echo and Google’s recently launched Google Home, have me a little on edge. As a kid of the 90s, they evoke the film Smart House and the perils that come with technology that becomes too smart for its own good. Starting around a decade ago, Google and Apple supplied us with phones that can do almost anything. Now they’re working to replace them with bots that can constantly take even more information from us, even when we’re not actively using them. I’m also not sure what it says about us when we pay nearly $2,000 for a robot friend that can order pizza and play music on command.

I’m interested to see how Pepper is received here in the states. Until then, I’ll just have to pretend it’s another innocuous bot that just wants a high-five.

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