ANDROID ANTICS. A boy plays with Pepper the robot at the
Westfield Mall in San Francisco. While merrily chirping,
dancing, and posing for selfies, Pepper looks like another
expensive toy in the San Francisco mall where it is entertaining
shoppers through mid-February. But it would be a mistake to
dismiss Pepper as mere child’s play, even though kids flock
around the four-foot-tall humanoid as it speaks in a cherubic
voice that could belong to either a boy or girl. (AP Photo/Jeff
From The Asian Reporter, V27, #2 (January 16, 2017),
Humanoid robot Pepper is amusing, but is it
By Michael Liedtke
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — While merrily chirping, dancing, and posing
for selfies, a robot named Pepper looks like another expensive
toy at a San Francisco mall. But don’t dismiss it as mere
Pepper embodies the ambitions of SoftBank Robotics, an Asian
joint venture formed by a trio of major technology companies
that’s aiming to put its personable robots in businesses and
homes across the U.S. over the next few years.
If the technology advances as SoftBank Robotics hopes, Pepper
could become a playmate, companion, and concierge. It could
eventually respond to voice commands to retrieve vital
information, make reservations, and control home appliances that
are connected to the internet.
That’s the theory, anyway. For now, Pepper is more amusing
than practical, Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder says.
For instance, Pepper has been directing shoppers to stores in
the mall through text messages because it still isn’t advanced
enough to say them out loud. And Pepper still has trouble
understanding what people are asking, requiring shoppers to type
in their requests for mall directions on a tablet mounted on the
SoftBank is trying to improve Pepper’s capabilities by
focusing first on the business market — retailers, hotels, auto
dealerships, and even hospitals. SoftBank hopes to use those
environments to learn more about what consumers like and don’t
like about Pepper and, from that, teach it more tasks, said
Steve Carlin, the venture’s vice president for marketing and
business development in North America.
Greetings in the mall
The recently launched test runs in Westfield Corp.’s malls in
San Francisco and Santa Clara, California, mark the first time
Pepper has made an extended appearance in the U.S. The robots
began appearing just before Thanksgiving and will stick around
through mid-February. Carlin says about 300 to 500 people per
day engaged with Pepper during its first month in the San
Francisco mall. During a recent visit, kids flocked around the
four-foot-tall humanoid as it spoke in a cherubic voice that
could belong to either a boy or girl.
Westfield views Pepper as a way to make shopping in the mall
more entertaining and enjoyable at a time when people are
increasingly buying merchandise online. Three Peppers are
sprinkled in heavily trafficked areas around Westfield’s San
Francisco mall and two more are in the Santa Clara center. If
all goes well, Westfield also plans to bring Pepper to its New
York mall at the World Trade Center and Garden State mall in
Paramus, New Jersey.
"We put her in our (human resources) system and have given
her a name tag," says Shawn Pauli, senior vice president for
Pepper got its start two years ago in Japan before expanding
into Europe. In those two markets, more than 10,000 Peppers are
already operating in grocery stores, coffee shops, banks, cruise
lines, railway stations, and homes. Most of the robots are in
businesses. SoftBank hasn’t disclosed how many have been sold to
Carlin acknowledges the U.S. will be a tougher market to
crack than Japan, where he says consumers tend to embrace new
technology more quickly.
In addition, Pepper’s price is likely to be out of reach for
most consumers. The robot currently sells for about $2,000; a
three-year subscription covering software upgrades, insurance,
and technology support increases the total to $18,000 to
Softbank Robotics is controlled by Japan’s SoftBank Group, a
technology conglomerate that recently pledged to invest $50
billion in U.S. startups. A remaining 40 percent stake is
equally owned by China’s Alibaba Group, Asia’s e-commerce
leader, and by Taiwan’s Foxconn, which assembles Apple’s iPhone
and is considering a U.S. expansion.
Pepper isn’t alone
Despite its pedigree, Pepper already lags behind a
cruder-looking robot that home improvement retailer Lowe’s has
been testing as a way to help shoppers find merchandise in its
sprawling stores, Gownder says.
The "LoweBot," a box-like machine on wheels, began patrolling
a San Jose, California store in November and will begin showing
up in 10 other stores in the San Francisco Bay area in early
2017. If all goes well, it could become a fixture in all of
Gownder gives LoweBot the early edge over Pepper because
Lowe’s machine has a detailed database of the store’s inventory,
enabling it to quickly determine if something is in stock and
then guide shoppers to the aisle where the requested item is
"While Pepper offers a lively, appealing interface, it
remains to be seen whether it will fill the role that retailers
want," Gownder says. "Does it have enough intelligence to answer
customers’ questions effectively?"
While LoweBot is a one-trick pony, focused on retail tasks,
SoftBank’s ambitions with Pepper are greater. Pepper has enough
artificial intelligence to recognize smiles and frowns, helping
the robot understand the mood of a person interacting with it.
But it also tends to lock its electronic eyes on someone
standing in front of it and continue to follow people as they
look away while ignoring the next visitor.
A recent visitor to the San Francisco mall, Sharif Ezzat,
noticed some of Pepper’s shortcomings and concluded that the
robot is still a long way from having mass appeal.
"I can’t see it right now, but I can see where it’s going,"
Ezzat said of Pepper’s potential.
Chaz MacSwan, a puppeteer in San Francisco, was more
"Look at the joy it’s bringing to people, especially the
kids," MacSwan said. "I’d love to have one, especially if it
could clean the carpets."
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