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SoftBank Launches $2K Personal Robot That Feels Emotions, Evolves

Mitch Wagner

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son introduced "the first robot with emotions" at a press conference in Japan Thursday. The household robot, capable of evolving to grow more sophisticated, will go on sale in February, priced at 198,000 yen (less than $2,000).

"One hundred years from today, or 200 years from today, the people will say that the history of computing changed from today," Son said. Computers today compute numbers, memorize, and calculate; they're "left-brained." But Pepper, the cute, waist-high humanoid robot SoftBank introduced Thursday, is right-brained. "So I proudly announce the first personal robot that feels emotion," Son said.

"Our vision is to create the affectionate robot," he said. SoftBank is working in partnership with French robot developer Aldebaran Robotics and Chinese manufacturer Foxconn for the Internet-connected robot.

The waist-high Pepper household robot will go on sale in February, but starts working in stores in Japan Friday.
The waist-high Pepper household robot will go on sale in February, but starts working in stores in Japan Friday.

Prior to general availability, robots like Pepper will work in SoftBank stores, starting with two Japanese locations on Friday.

The press conference, broadcast online on streaming video, opened with the cartoonish robot doing a graceful, slow-motion dance, and then Son joined the robot for a bit of comedy schtick. The robot looked embarrassed at being onstage in front of a crowd of journalists.

Then the robot rolled offstage, and Son explained SoftBank's strategy.

Robots like Pepper will work in families, reacting autonomously to the happiness and sadness of family members, Son said.

The robots will use a cloud-based artificial intelligence "emotion engine," learning family habits and likes and storing the information in the cloud while also protecting privacy. The robots will share collective information for greater learning, Son said. SoftBank is launching Cocoro SB, a company to provide cloud service for the emotional engine.

"Anything good is going to be collected, collective wisdom, learned by everyone. They are all going to evolve through the collective wisdom, by reading situations," Son said. Events that lead to intense emotions, such as a child's birthday party, will be "intensely recorded." But unimportant events, such as watching TV, will be minimized, compressed or simplified. "The wave of the emotion is relatively small," Son said.

SoftBank's partner in the Pepper enterprise, Aldebaran, developed the Nao robot, and has more than 3,000 deployed in research, education, and in helping people with autism, founding president Bruno Maisonnier said at the press conference.

Pepper "will add a new dimension to our daily lives and change the way we interact with technology," Maisonnier said.

"Robots are the ultimate interface, cute companions, and can evolve. As the ultimate interface, they can choose the appropriate way to interact, by voice, body language, or emotions," he added.

Pepper combines voice recognition with an emotional engine that can understand facial expressions, gestures, and voice tones, giving the robot the ability to understand mood and react correctly, with applications in education, healthcare, entertainment, and other industries. Additionally, Pepper is connected to the Internet.

"And the robot has body language and expressivity," Maisonnier said. "Finally, the robot is autonomous and can evolve. The robot is like a new species of artificial beings that can evolve, and learn, and become more surprising every day."

Maisonnier compared the robot to the first PCs or mobile phones -- crude, but a new beginning.

Aldebaran will host a developer conference in September for third-party applications built on Pepper.

Japan has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world, and the government hopes to offset a labor shortage using robots, Reuters reports.

Japan's overall robotics market was worth about 860 billion yen ($8.38 billion) two years ago, and will triple to 2.85 trillion yen by 2020, Reuters says.

Panasonic and robotics research subsidiary ActiveLink this week showed robotic suits and vests to assist in difficult manual tasks such as carrying heavy loads or picking fruit from trees.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to wagner@lightreading.com.

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User Rank: Light Sabre
6/6/2014 | 2:24:17 AM
Terms like "cloud-based emotion engine" really sound like something right-brained, full of emotions.

A toy for those missing both hemispheres.


Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
6/5/2014 | 3:41:12 PM
Re: Jaded
sam masud - We're starting to get into deep philosophical waters here. Can a machine feel? Or does it simply detect human emotions and emulate an appropriate response? (As if there was anything simple about that.)
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
6/5/2014 | 3:38:56 PM
Re: Jaded
$2,000 makes this a toy for the rich. But the way pricing on electronics goes, it'll be $200 in 10 years. 

So now imagine this as a humanoid Internet terminal. Or like Siri or Google Now in a cute humanoid form. "When is my next appointment?" "Read me my last text message?" "How's traffic between here and the office?" "What's the weather going to be like this afternoon?" 

I can maybe see the value of that. 

One open question: How's the dexterity on this gadget? I don't expect it to have much strength, but can it go get me a yogurt from the refrigerator when I ask it to? Can it pick up the dog toys from the sunroom and put them in the box, and then pick up all the little bits of paper from where the dog shredded an envelope out of the recycle bin?
sam masud
sam masud,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/5/2014 | 3:10:40 PM
Re: Jaded
I dunno, Mitch, seems they really are stretching the marketing language when they start talking about an emotional robot, which to me seems like an oxymoron. Maybe they should call it a hubot (human+robot). Never mind, that was just a thought...
Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
6/5/2014 | 5:19:07 AM
Re: Jaded
I was intrigued by the mention of how they help autistic children. But yeah, it does seem like an instant buddy for someone with more money than they know how to spend. 
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
6/5/2014 | 2:10:15 AM
I'm a jaded tech journalist, but watching the press conference was like watching the beginning of the Singularity.

Still, the jaded tech journalist in me said, ok, it's very cool -- but what's it do? Why would I want to buy one, other than as a $2,000 toy?
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