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Pepper the 'emotional robot' makes its way to Silicon Valley

Pepper, the humanoid robot created by Aldebaran Robotics and SoftBank Mobile, is slowly making its way to the US — and it’s starting in Silicon Valley. The robot was seen in action this week at the b8ta store in Palo Alto, California, a gadget shop launched by former Nest employees.

Pepper was on a demo loop at the store, so we weren’t able to fully interact with it. But the idea behind Pepper is that it’s supposed to interpret and respond to a variety of customer needs. Using a combination of 2D and 3D cameras in its eyes and mouth, plus four multi-directional microphones, Pepper is able to “read” four human emotions — happiness, joy, sadness, and anger — and respond accordingly. It rolls up to you, raises its hands in greeting when you introduce yourself, and turns its head toward you when you move or talk. It is toylike and adorable.


What’s more interesting than Pepper’s supposed emotional quotient is its potential to know exactly what you’re doing in a store. Right now, more than 10,000 of these robots have been deployed across Japan or are in pilot trials in Europe, and the vast majority are being used in retail and hospitality businesses. A Pepper robot might know when you’ve entered a store, how much time you’ve spent there, how many products you interact with, or whether you seem happy or angry when you pick up a product. It will tell you, “That camera is 20 percent off,” in its innocent-kid-voice, its big eyes blinking at you, and make you think about buying that camera.

Pepper might tell you, “That camera is 20 percent off,” its big eyes blinking at you, and make you think about buying that camera

“When I was at P&G I didn’t know how many people walked into Walmart and saw our brands,” Steve Carlin, Softbank Robotic’s vice president of marketing and business development, said in an interview with The Verge. “Now, I can.”

Of course, many retail stores already use cameras, sensors, and other technology to gain insights on customer intent, interactions and purchases. But Pepper is an attempt to put a friendly face on sophisticated tracking technology that some consumers might even consider … invasive.


“The key word is empathy,” Carlin said. “Cameras and screens are very passive. Pepper creates empathy.” He acknowledged that Pepper could face the same “issues” that any technology does when it comes to consumer concerns about privacy, but ultimately, it all depends on how the end user — in this case, the merchant or business paying for Pepper’s services — uses information.

As my Verge colleague Sam Byford pointed out during his recent encounter with Pepper in Japan, there’s still little evidence of its true emotion-detecting capabilities at this stage. But it may get there someday, especially as developers begin to create apps that run on NAOqi, its proprietary OS.

Pepper won’t be a permanent fixture in Silicon Valley; it’s just there for a week to let people know that it’s in the US, and to get app developers excited about it. Softbank Robotics executives say the robots will find their way into other US retail stores “before the end of the year.” Merchants and other business owners will pay several hundred dollars a week for Pepper and its services, all of which is sold as a three-year subscription. But Softbank is betting its emotional robot will easily pay for itself.


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