​QUT to use SoftBank's Pepper for social robotics research

SoftBank Robotics' Pepper will take up residency at the Queensland University of Technology as it explores the future of social robotics.

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Pepper with QUT's roboticist Belinda Ward

Image: Supplied

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has unveiled its plans to study social robotics, inviting SoftBank Robotics' Pepper onto its campus.

The university will be using Pepper as a social robotics research platform, which it said complements the Queensland government's strategy to explore the potential for humanoid robots.

The Japanese technology giant's Pepper is capable of recognising emotions and mimicking human behaviours such as following the conversation around it by looking at whoever is talking.

"Pepper is probably the most 'personable' robot on the market in terms of its perceived emotional intelligence, which makes it a fantastic platform to investigate the suitability of social robots, which is still a very new field," QUT roboticist Belinda Ward said.

"What we learn from human-computer interactions with Pepper will inform the next generation of service robots, building an effective social component into their task-oriented programming."

Ward is from QUT's Science and Engineering Faculty and is also a part of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, which recently received a two-year, AU$1.5 million research and development grant from the Queensland government to explore social robotics with SoftBank.

The AU$1.5 million comes courtesy of the state government's Advance Queensland initiative, which was launched by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in the 2015-16 Budget.

Ward said the funding would allow her team to explore the different applications of these robots across a range of settings and conditions, and their effectiveness in each.

"While a social robot in every home is probably a long way off for society, I see a place for social robots supporting human staff in every hospital, aged care facility and classroom, as companions and helpers -- and there are no doubt many more settings we haven't even considered yet," she added.

"Would a shy child in a classroom be more willing to ask a question of the robot rather than the class? Would a nursing home resident enjoy reminiscing about their past to a robot? Would a hospital patient feel comfortable chatting with a robot as it tidied their room?"

Ward's team will also work with ST Solutions Australia (STSA), a subsidiary of SoftBank Corp, to improve Pepper's vision and navigation systems.

QUT's use of Pepper will also have a strong student focus, expected to spend most of its time interacting with students and the public at The Cube, the university's science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) engagement space.

QUT students and visiting high school students will also be able to experiment with Pepper, coding programs for it to run.

Last month, STSA signed a two-year proof of concept agreement with the Queensland government that will see it work on the development of humanoid robots, artificial intelligence, and other autonomous systems out of the state's innovation and startup centre located in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley.

The partnership will allow the government to explore the potential for humanoid robotics in education, health, and customer care.

STSA, the state government, and QUT's technology commercialisation company, qutbluebox, will also work in partnership to deliver a Robotics Accelerator program that will bring together entrepreneurial teams and innovative hardware technologies, as well as business mentorship.

"This program will fast-track the development of the next generation of startup founders to drive forward robotics and other hardware solutions across a range of industries," qutbluebox CEO Tim McLennan said on Thursday.

According to McLennan, the Robotics Accelerator is Australia's first accelerator dedicated to robotics.

When SoftBank offered 1,000 of its emotionally intelligent Pepper robots to the consumer market in 2015, the entire run sold out in under a minute.

Pepper was developed for SoftBank by Aldebaran, a French robotics company specialising in emotionally intelligent humanoids that can function in unstructured environments like homes, shops, and specialised care facilities.

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