Pepper the robot with a 'heart' goes on sale in Japan

A robot that has a ‘heart’ designed to identify human emotions and react accordingly with anger, joy and irritation, will be available to consumers from June 20 in Japan.

Technology company Softbank’s Pepper robot, which has no legs and moves on wheels, will sell for 198,000 yen (£1,000) in a bid to spur adoption of the humanoid robot. The firm will also offer a service plan for 14,800 yen (£75), which will allow users access to cloud-based voice-recognition software.

Pepper has no hair, but features more than 20 motors and highly articulated arms to compensate. It went through a year-long software development programme after first being announced. It is capable of human-like body language and, according to Softbank Corp CEO Masayoshi Son, the robot will develop its own personality of sorts, depending on how people interact with it.

“Of course there is a need for mechanical robots that are strong and can perform physical work,” Son said at a press briefing. “We think there is value in a robot that can understand human feelings.”

The company has made improvements to Pepper’s emotion engine, so that it can maintain a map of emotional responses ranging from glee to depression and uses external inputs such as light and interaction with people to adjust its state. Pepper can remember faces and is programmed to be happy when given attention, but becomes depressed when it's not, Son said.

“It will also cheer up sad people and try to mitigate suffering,” he added.

The company said they are preparing for a global sales launch with partners Alibaba Group of China and Foxconn of Taiwan, even though details of when and where it will go on sale outside Japan are still undecided. However, it is believed the first overseas sales are likely to happen in 2016, with test sales set for later this year.

The robot went on sale to developers in a limited run of 300 units in February and SoftBank said it has now built a further 1,000 units to go on sale from this month. The creators hope that Pepper’s human-like aspects will play on people’s heartstrings enough to ignite an adoption of cloud services and attract app developers. With the sales launch, approximately 200 robot apps will be available for download from the app store, in addition to the pre-installed basic ones.

Pepper was inspired by Son’s childhood memories of Astro Boy, he said, an animated Japanese character that did not have a heart and could not understand why people cried. He made a point of programming Pepper to look like it weeps; lights well up in its round eyes, courtesy of AI technology from IBM.

“Our vision is to offer a robot with love,” Son said.

One way the robot might be used, Son said, is replaying the video it has taken of an individual over several years, even decades, to show at his or her wedding, for instance, as Pepper is programmed to document moments when it senses elevated emotional arousal in its owner, such as happiness and surprise.

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