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Pepper personal robot goes on sale June 20: will soon be looking for a job

The world's first "emotional" humanoid robot offers companionship, but SoftBank is about to launch an enterprise version, Pepper for Biz, which might link with IBM's Watson. Would that work for you?

Pepper robot talks to people in a corridor
SoftBank's Pepper robot will be followed by a Pepper for Biz, aimed at enterprises... Photo credit: Emma Innocenti

SoftBank Robotics will start selling Pepper, "the world's first personal robot that can read emotions", in Japan on June 20, 2015. The first 1,000 will be available in June at almost $2,000 each, aimed at consumers. However, next month, Softbank will unveil Pepper for Biz, which it describes as "a dedicated model for enterprises".

For the past year, Pepper robots have been "working" at a few SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan, mainly to introduce themselves to the public. Some could presumably find jobs as "meet and greet" staff, answering questions and giving directions, with the aid of their built-in tablet screens. Their novelty value could even make them cost-effective, despite their need for some (relatively costly) human supervision.

Pepper's main claims to fame are that it can read and react to human emotions, and that it can exhibit its own emotions. This bolsters its claim to offer companionship. These could also be advantages in commercial situations.

Nao and Pepper robots
Nao (left) and Pepper.... Photo: Aldebaran

Pepper has been developed by the SoftBank-owned Aldebaran Robotics, and can run software developed for Aldebaran's much smaller toy robot, Nao. It will also run new software developed for Pepper. It may also be able to use IBM's Watson, following collaborations that started earlier this year. (See: IBM, Softbank partner on cognitive computing: Watson, meet Pepper)

The big question is whether having a three-wheeled mobile humanoid robot brings any significant advantages over having a screen-based adviser like Microsoft's Cortana, Google Now or Apple's Siri.

Pepper is almost 4ft tall (1.2m), weighs 62 pounds (28kg), and has numerous expensive moving parts including a head, shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers. This enables "him" to be expressive but requires 20 motors. Pepper also uses two cameras, four microphones and numerous touch sensors for input. That's a lot of technology for a robot with zero functionality. As Aldebaran's FAQ says: "He's an emotional robot, not a functional robot for domestic use."

It will be interesting to hear SoftBank's plans when it announces Pepper for Biz at next month's SoftBank World 2015. If it pitches Pepper as a mobile companion and interactive observer for care homes, hospitals and recovery centers, I won't be surprised. And given Japan's aging population, those could be good markets.