Robots are going to work in Japanese banks, hospitals and schools, but keep your expectations low.
Pepper the home robot is looking for work. According to SoftBank, the Japanese company behind the humanoid bot that looks like a friendlier version of an anime villain, this is the year that robots start working for us. That said, businesses are keeping tasks simple. Easy, uncomplicated, dull, simple. So far Pepper has made its way into 500 companies. This week I toured Pepper’s early career options.
Blood pressure readouts
Pepper doesn’t cure you (but it’ll tell you what’s happening)
Robots like Pepper are far from ready to diagnose patients and offer treatment. However, as with blood pressure, weight tracking and other simple tasks, robots can take some of the burden off health professionals. Is that enough? Image Credit: AOL
Pepper goes to school (or at least daycare)
In one of the demonstration areas at this week’s Pepper World expo in Japan, the robot showcased education apps aimed at children. For instance, Pepper will ask your age and then vocally quiz you about your learning style, mixed with some silly (age-appropriate) jokes and gestures. A second demo highlighted a simple way to program Pepper, aimed at very young kids. Based on physical stimuli (patting its head, kicking its base), Pepper reacts as you program and then moves on to the next task in its queue. These early tricks seem more like an addition to daycare (like new equipment) than a substitute for a human worker. In general, many of the Pepper for Business demonstrations and apps are geared toward foreigners, children and the elderly — groups that are surely harder to predict and listen to. A young child could easily get distracted and talk while facing away from the robot. After enough listening mistakes (or having a robot there every day, getting increasingly less interesting), it could be the child who switches off. Image Credit: AOL
Pepper gets schooled
At a junior high school level, students can connect Pepper to a PC or tablet and program it with simple decision-flow diagrams and icons. Image Credit: AOL
Pepper the language tutor
A third-party app from G-Angle showcased one of the more realistic uses for Pepper. Loaded with a limited selection of words and phrases (say, for a simple social interaction or a unit from a high school textbook), the robot can initiate a conversation to practice what you’ve learned, with multiple sentence structures. At this point, the best kind of feedback you’ll get is silence (when Pepper can’t understand what you’re saying), but there’s a read-and-repeat benefit hidden there. And the robot’s not going to get bored if you want to repeat the conversation over again. Image Credit: AOL
Japan’s aging society is a big concern, with government estimates suggesting that the country will see a 30 percent reduction in the workforce by 2045. SoftBank hopes this is an area where Pepper will shine (and make it a bunch of money). The robot pictured here is loaded up with a brain-training exercise (made by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, the same man responsible for those DS games.) It’s aimed at retirement homes, where it can assist with entertaining residents. Image Credit: AOL
Pepper’s smartphone store
Pepper the robot personally announced SoftBank’s plans to launch a smartphone store run by bots like itself. This could be impossible: There are laws governing contract-signing that will likely mean there needs to be at least one human hovering behind these white four-foot robots. The store will, however, act as a test bed for SoftBank and its robot-making arm, Aldebaran. Image Credit: AOL
Wearing a waistcoat is mandatory
One of Pepper’s early breaks was cheerleading Nescafe’s coffee machines. Responsibilities were simple: entertaining shoppers, talking about the coffee machines on sale and… that’s about it. But look at that waistcoat!
The robots know which phone you want
Speaking of that Pepper-staffed phone store, SoftBank also showcased cameras that scanned a shop for customers’ faces, identifying the ages of visitors. (I’m not actually 37, for what it’s worth.) The company also demonstrated software that sets up heatmaps around a store to pinpoint which products customers are interested in. Once they communicate to Pepper which smartphone has caught their attention, the robot can communicate this information to nearby TVs that can run through a device’s features and specs.
500 companies have “hired” a Pepper robot
500 companies have “hired” a Pepper robot. From international airlines like ANA and JAL, through to banks, department stores and tourist associations, businesses are testing out Pepper to ready it for real-world work environments. But at this early stage, is it all just a gimmick, or a real movement towards a true, interactive robot workforce? Image Credit: AOL
Is Pepper ready for work?
In one telling demo, I ran through a sale with Pepper, but the process merely required me to enter data into a talking tablet: The robot doesn’t really add anything to the experience. I could have done the exact same thing with an iPad — or even a pen and paper. Pepper currently costs 55,000 yen (roughly $464) a month to run. Businesses still need to establish how to make a robot to work for them — and us. For now, the idea of a robot wheeling itself around your reception, misunderstanding what you say and repeating the same jokes isn’t a tenable sales pitch. Image Credit: AOL