Next February Japanese cellular operator SoftBank will launch a humanoid named Pepper, which can read people's emotions. Pepper's mission is to entertain us. I see a lot of upside for SoftBank, but little for consumers.
Apps and cloud
Pepper will start meeting people at some of SoftBank's cellphone stores in Tokyo this weekend. Is this Pepper announcement simply a publicity stunt by SoftBank’s CEO, who presumably wants to bring more people into his stores? Perhaps.
But that doesn’t explain why SoftBank went out of its way to unveil Pepper for the consumer market, detailing its launch schedule (February, 2015) and pricing (at 198,000 yen). Under close examination, though, I see two design principles integral to this humanoid project that might have attracted Son in the first place. They are: apps and cloud services.
Softbank's Pepper robot.
Bruno Maisonnier, founder and CEO of Aldebaran, started developing the company’s first autonomous, programmable humanoid robot called Nao in 2004 and launched it on the commercial market in 2008. According to Maisonnier, both Nao and Pepper use the same software foundation called NAOqi. The operating system is designed to make robot programming easier, according to Aldebaran.
What’s new with Pepper is that Aldebaran plans to open Pepper to developers, who will create applications to be offered to other users. Like the apps that triggered the smartphone’s success, Aldebaran is betting on Pepper apps to expand the robot’s capabilities, aiming for success on the consumer market. I suspect that SoftBank sees the inherent power in Pepper not for its hardware, but for potential killer apps that could make the humanoid platform truly popular.
SoftBank calls Pepper “the world’s first personal robot that reads emotions.” But Pepper wasn’t born with full understanding of human emotions. These it has to learn. Pepper’s sensitivity is expected to grow as the humanoid gains knowledge via cloud-based artificial intelligence.
Son explained that the robots deployed at SoftBank stores, for example, will start collecting data on their interactions with people. When Pepper tells a joke, it will observe if people laugh, for example. The robots will upload their data to a cloud-based repository.
Pepper will continue to collect data once it’s installed in homes. When Pepper is at home reading a book to a child and sees her smiling a lot, for example, that situation is duly noted by the humanoid. In recognizing positive reactions, Pepper “digitizes feelings” and “learns autonomously,” according to SoftBank’s presentation.
This humanoid, currently connected to the Internet via WiFi, will likely become LTE-enabled, according to Son. SoftBank has positioned itself to collect a lot of data about consumers and their behavior through Pepper -- in the name of making Pepper smarter and more human. Putting the apps and cloud threads together, it’s pretty obvious SoftBank will probably profit from Pepper a lot more than consumers will.
Next Page: Entertainment, really?