Humanoid robot Pepper will get a new brain to help her learn Japanese

IBM's artificial brain to power Japan's companion robot

The IBM-developed artificial intelligence engine Watson will be integrated into Japan’s humanoid robot Pepper to make it smarter and more empathetic.

Pepper, developed by French robotics company Aldebaran and Japan’s mobile phone operator Softbank, will go on sale in Japan in the next weeks.

The use of Watson will enable the robot, already used in English applications in healthcare, travel and insurance services, to better grasp the complex Japanese language.

Unlike other cognitive technologies that responds rather mechanically, Watson can learn over time like a human brain, and understands the concept of probability, which makes it very sophisticated and more human-like for applications, according to IBM.

"It depends on the context of the conversation as to what the right answer would be," explained Steve Gold, Vice President of the IBM Watson Group. "The world is seldom absolute."

With the help of Watson, the robot will become less machine-like in its interactions and will be capable of understanding various nuances in the language based on the context.

The complex Japanese language with its thousands of characters, multiple phonetic options and meanings, put the artificial brain to test, IBM admitted.

“The Japanese language presented IBM researchers with a number of unique challenges to overcome, most notably the first time the Watson system has learned a language that relies on characters not shared by the Western alphabet," said Paul Yonamine, General Manager, IBM.

Pepper will go on sale in Japan next month. Selling for 198,000 yen (£1,100), the robot will be only available to developers for the first months, before being launched into the open market this summer.

Softbank’s CEO Masayoshi Son said giving the developers a head start with the robot will translate into benefits for regular customers as more applications will be available once the robot in on sale.

Besides Pepper, Softbank plans other uses for Watson inside the company but also reselling it in Japan to businesses such as call centres and collaborating with other companies on new applications.

The firm hopes Watson will allow call centres to provide better services due to the improved natural language interpretation algorithms.

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