By Gloria Lombardi

In the movies, humanoid robots don’t seem to have any trouble understanding people. The Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz goes as far as questing for a heart.
In real life though it’s almost impossible to conceive interacting with a machine as if it was a life companion or work collaborator!

pepper4Yet, developers at Aldebaran, which is part of the large Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank, have built the first ’emotional’ robot: Pepper.

I met with the Aldebaran’s team at the Millennial 20/20 in London to learn more about their creation. Why building a robot with a focus on affection? How could Pepper change the way businesses operate? This is what I found out.

Meet Pepper

Pepper0Pepper is slender. It is 120 cm tall and weighs 28 kg. It has a fluid silhouette that allows 17 articulations. Its hands model those of humans, with five fingers and a gripping system. Equipped with a 3D camera and multiple sensors, Pepper can move, avoid obstacles, and identify sounds. It moves smoothly in all directions thanks to three wheels at the base. It follows you and even recharges independently.

In fact, one of the main challenges for Aldebaran to face while developing the technology was to enable the general acceptance of their robot by the society. So, the technology was designed purposefully to make the machine disappears in favour of the emotional interaction.

Emotional and interactive

Are you sad, angry, happy? Pepper is an artificial machine that progressively learns to understand your mood and adapts accordingly. It shows its own reactions through the color of its eyes, gestures, and its own words.

“The idea of Pepper is to have a robot that communicates and interacts with people,” says Business Development Manager Adrien De La Tour.

Pepper interprets basic expressions on the human face such as a smile, frown, look of surprise, anger, and sadness. It also understands the intonation of the voice, the context of the words as well as non-verbal language, including the tilt of the head! “The goal is to understand and adapt its reactions to fit people’s mood.”

The robot, of course, currently requires assistance. Pepper does not understand everything and sometimes can make mistakes. In fact, the autonomy of Pepper is progressive: it improves over time.

You teach it through your discussions, which help it memorise names, faces, moods, tastes and habits. “As Pepper continues to recognise you, it starts to develop a memory of your relationship together. It will not ask you the same things twice, and gradually creates an emotional connection with the person it interacts.”

Pepper2There is a table placed on its heart, which displays additional information to enrich the interaction. At present, Pepper has a large database of questions and answers in Japanese, English and French. Its voice has also been the subject of in-depth work on expressiveness with custom voices created for English, French and Japanese to better adapt to the culture of the country. Currently, it has three shades of different voices: playful, neutral and didactic.

Tomorrow, according to the Aldebaran team, Pepper will be empowered by an application library. It will access it to find new behaviours, activities, and content to inform and entertain people.

Pepper at work

Japan has always had a long history of robotics activity. SoftBank is also Japanese. So, it is not surprising that the launch of Pepper into the business world started in the Japanese market in 2015.

The robot is already working in 2,000 SoftBank Mobile stores, greeting, informing and entertaining visitors in the three different languages it knows. It has not been sold outside the country yet, apart from very rare exceptions.

De La Tour says that it was important to test it and see how it worked in Japan before going to other regions where its acceptance could be more resisted and questioned.

Still, we can already see some Peppers in Europe. For example, “there are a few of them in train stations and retail stores in France. Very soon there will be some Peppers in cruise ships for the Costa Group.” All those projects are trials to start with. But, in a few months, Pepper will be available for companies to use.

In fact, “the robot can work in any kind of client-facing environment,” says De La Tour. It can go from being a sales advisor in retail stores to work in train stations, airports, hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. “Basically, everywhere you have people looking for information or finding something – the robot is there to make the link between what they are searching for and the solution. That is how it is used today.”

Pepper as a work companion

But, why should Pepper – rather than a person – greet and help people in a store?

pepper1“The idea is not to replace humans. Pepper, is a machine that assists and complements people’s work,” says De La Tour.

He believes that are many advantages in collaborating with Pepper. “First of all, it is a very systematic machine. So it can deliver a unified poll of services to any kind of client coming to a store. Thanks to its large database it can solve a number of problems and situations that are difficult for an individual to handle.”

In some ways, says De La Tour, it is comparable to when an organisation gives its sales person a tablet to work. “It is just another vector of information to enhance the customer experience. But Pepper is not replacing anything. It’s an addition.”

The story of Pepper – SoftBank and Aldebaran

The next generation of technology and innovation have always been part of the DNA of SoftBank. In 2011, they decided to invest in personal robotics capable of enriching and simplifying people’s lives. It identified several companies worldwide to partner with, but Aldebaran proved to be one of the most experienced in this market.

naoFounded by a French entrepreneur Bruno Maisonnier, Aldebaran creates companion robots to support humans in their everyday life. In 2006, they created NAO, which also was at the Millennial 20/20. New versions of NAO emerged over time, leading to some educational uses in schools. For example, today, NAO can support teachers in assisting children with autism and other special needs.

In 2014, Aldebaran started collaborating with SoftBank for the creation of Pepper, which became the first robot in the world able to read emotions.

Pepper as a platform

Indeed, there are still many challenges for the robot. Yet, De La Tour believes that the future of Pepper is bright. “We cannot even imagine all the future use cases. Pepper will continue developing based on a number of tools and updates.”

In fact, Aldebaran is inviting animators, sound, and graphic designers, as well as linguistics to join the community to invent and plan content to make Pepper more interesting. Developers will be soon able to submit their applications on Aldebaran online store and enter their developer program. The community is also given the opportunity to learn in one of the ateliers in Paris and Tokyo.

“Pepper will evolve over time allowing people to do more things and interacting with them in ways that we haven’t discovered yet.”

As research keep focusing on machines that master algorithms and improve over time, it’s entirely possible we’ll find ourselves communicating and collaborating with robots like Pepper.

But, this will also demand opening up to a broad dialogue in order to answer some fundamental questions about our future relationship with work. And what needs to change civically to accommodate the change in our society, positively.

Pictures courtesy of Aldebaran.