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.
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.