Over the past half-century, robots have played an increasingly important role in industry and manufacturing, boosting productivity and quality with their tireless precision, and workplace safety with their ability to handle dangerous materials and environments. These assembly line workhorses, however, are not usually what first come to mind when we think of robots. For the general public, the image of robots has been heavily shaped by the imagination of science fiction and Hollywood: humanoid machines that can understand what we say to them, answer all our questions, and help us with our daily tasks. Real-life robots, however, have only just recently started to live up to the examples of their fictional counterparts. A number of design teams have achieved new breakthroughs, developing robots that can respond to their environment much like a human does, and Japan has been leading the way in this field.

One of the most well-known of this new generation of helper robots is Pepper, developed and sold by SoftBank Robotics, and division of Japan-based telecommunications giant, Softbank Group. Designed as an assistant for use in public spaces, Pepper’s ability to interact smoothly with customers has made it a popular addition to retail, service, and financial businesses throughout Japan. At a recent event hosted by the Japan Society in New York, Yoshida Kenichi, Chief Business Officer and Executive Vice President of Softbank Robotics, gave a talk titled “Meet Pepper: The World’s First Humanoid Robot that Reads Human Emotions,” in which he discussed the development of Pepper and the company’s plans for introducing the robot in North America.

Yoshida Kenichi of SoftBank Robotics talks about the many applications that Pepper can fulfill

Beginning his talk, Mr. Yoshida outlined the history of SoftBank over the past 30 years from a developer of PC software to one of the world’s leading mobile communications companies. “But what is going to come in the next 30 years?” he asks. “The next big thing in IT is definitely the singularity, which consists of three components: Artificial Intelligence, Smart Robotics, and the Internet of Things, so we decided to make those three the new core of our group business.” Softbank Robotics released Pepper in 2015, and soon it was in use by over 2,000 companies, with over 10,000 of them working in offices, restaurants, and stores, or living in people’s homes.

According to its promotional video, Pepper is “not designed to replace humans, but to make them happy and enhance their lives.” SoftBank Robotics envisioned three main business roles for the device: receptionist, sales associate, and online-offline PR representative. In the first category, he describes the usage of Pepper by a family sushi restaurant. “These restaurants are very popular and very crowded, and there is usually a human receptionist that customers need to give their reservations to. Pepper can fulfill this role, asking customers for their information, helping them to make reservations, and directing them to their tables. While the human staff are handling payment or other store issues, Pepper can take care of the receptionist role, allowing customers to be seated easily and with shorter waiting times.”

Pepper has been working with businesses throughout Japan for nearly five years

One feature that makes Pepper unique is its ability to look at the faces of the customers and recognize age, gender, or even if they are a first-time customer, and then use analytics and sales data to provide them with customized shop information. Pepper also has the ability to recognize when a passerby is making eye contact, which it has put to use in becoming a highly effective sales assistant: “During a trial at an electronics store, over 500 customers stopped at the hair dryer display where Pepper was standing,” says Yoshida. “And after talking with Pepper, over 150 people tried the dryer,” leading to a seven-fold increase in sales. “Normally, for promotions like this, manufacturers will send trained sales staff to the department stores. But trained staff are expensive and may not be readily available, so in this case they can send human staff to the biggest stores, and Pepper for the rest of the stores.”

An important factor in making Pepper a successful sales assistant, especially compared with traditional electronic approaches such as tablets or online apps, is its ability to engage with customers. Pepper’s cute design, combined with its highly responsive reactions, make customers more willing to interact with it than with a tablet or even a human salesperson. “In one of our promotions with an ice cream shop, Pepper was able get many more people to register with the store. The normal process is to ask people for their phone number, and then text them a link with instructions for registration. Normally, customers are reluctant to give their phone numbers to another person, but they did so readily with Pepper. In another promotion with a car dealer, Pepper would approach potential customers and offer to provide them with a quote for a used car. After explaining the various benefits of the used car, Pepper would then give the potential customer a quote on a new car and call over a human salesperson after gaining the customer’s interest.” By engaging with customers and putting them at ease, Pepper can lower barriers and make sales more easily.

Lastly, Pepper has one more pivotal role to play: the face of SoftBank Robotics’ other offerings of AI and IoT. “The key part of the robot is the user experience, rather than the function. We believe that Pepper can bring AI and IoT to life,” Yoshida explains. “It’s really difficult to experience AI or IoT, but through Pepper as the key interface, we can feel what AI and IoT really are.” As a result, numerous other leaders in IT, who are working on their own AI systems, are looking for partnerships with SoftBank Robotics to use Pepper as an interface for their own systems. While on the surface Pepper may be viewed as merely a cute and charismatic figure, many in the world of IT are hoping it will usher in the next generation of technological advances.

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