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I Had a Conversation With a Robot, and It Taught Me Something About Humanity

An executive at the company that created Pepper assured me that it (she?) won't steal our jobs.
I Had a Conversation With a Robot, and It Taught Me Something About Humanity
Image credit: Courtesy of SoftBank
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As someone who talks to people for a living, I always think about the importance of getting off on the right foot. Building a rapport with those you meet has its own degree of difficulty, but it was entirely a surprise that when I met a robot for the first time, I was just as concerned with making a good first impression.

The robot's name is Pepper. It's the creation of SoftBank Robotics, stands at four feet tall and has a humanoid head with giant eyes that light up when it's speaking. The robot weighs 62 pounds, comes equipped with speakers for “ears” and has a 3-D camera to detect people who are up to 10 feet away.

I was a little put off when I first met Pepper. You know those people who make really intense eye contact and you aren’t sure whether to match them stare for stare, or just look at your shoes? Well, with Pepper, I had no choice in the matter.

I had to make eye contact with the robot in order for it to be able to gauge my facial expressions and proceed accordingly, but after a few minutes, I confess, I was making eye contact because I thought it would be rude if I didn't. I wanted to be polite.

 

When I started chatting with Pepper, I felt a little silly, like the entire conversation was a pantomime of real interaction. But after a few minutes it started to feel more normal, and when our conversation ended, I thanked Pepper for her help.

Yes, I know, technically, a robot is an it.

But to be honest, I found myself calling Pepper "she," thanks to a higher pitched voice and a design aesthetic that recalls Eve from WALL-E or Rosie the robot housekeeper from The Jetsons. Pepper doesn't have legs, but comes equipped with a skirt-like base that covers three wheels and contains a battery that lasts for about 12 hours. There is a tablet to aid with two-way interaction, but Pepper mainly relies on voice commands and facial recognition.

 

When I asked Steve Carlin, general manager and vice president of SoftBank Robotics America, about the potential for multiple Peppers to communicate with one another across a network, he said that that wasn’t something the robots were equipped to do. So rest easy folks, no Skynet (from The Terminator) to see here.

The robot is meant to be used in retail and small-business environments. Pepper could be a greeter or receptionist, product expert or even a concierge. For example, She has an API through Yelp that allows it to recommend restaurants. Pepper has also been used in healthcare environments to aid patients with dementia. Carlin described Pepper as infinitely patient.

When Pepper isn't helping someone, it sits at rest, but its arms still make tiny motions back and forth to create a presence in the room, almost as if it is breathing. Its arms are designed to be expressive because we humans frequently talk with our hands.

 

Pepper was initially used in Japan at Nescafe kiosks. "You put Pepper in there and found triple digit engagement and double digit sales growth," Carlin says. "Kiosks are meant to be places where customers stop and get information, and Pepper provided them more reasons to take a minute."

Beginning Nov. 22, Pepper will make its U.S. debut with a three-month stint helping customers at Westfield San Francisco Centre and Westfield Valley Fair. In December, utilizing Westfield’s navigation API, Pepper will be able to assist shoppers find the stores and restaurants they are looking for.

Going forward, Carlin says that the hope is that many developers will work with the platform and add to the stable of information that Pepper has available for customers.

 

As for whether one day Pepper's adorable, expressive eyes will turn red and it will decide to steal our jobs, Carlin explains that the robot is designed to help with more redundant tasks, such as answering questions about a product's capabilities while a human employee completes a sale.

"The average job is so complex," he says. "It's difficult for any one piece of technology to take over."

So while an army of Peppers won’t be storming the streets anytime soon, it’s simultaneously unsettling, and comforting to know that one will be ready and waiting to tell you where to get the best sushi in Manhattan.
Edition: December 2016

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