SoftBank and Aldeberan have teamed up on a Linux-based, $1,930 personal robot named Pepper that can read emotions and respond autonomously.
As we gradually approach the “singularity” when robots overtake human intelligence, we often comfort ourselves in believing robots will never duplicate our often troublesome capacity for emotion. Yet such James Kirkian sentiments may prove suspect as roboticists make robots more sensitive to emotions while using emotional expression to communicate.
“For the first time in human history, we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions,” said SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son at this week’s press conference, as quoted by BBC.com.
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Emotional robot projects are underway in labs around the world, but the first to reach consumers will be a humanoid bot named Pepper. Developed for SoftBank Mobile by Aldeberan Robotics, with the help of Yoshimoto Robotics Laboratory, Pepper will begin interacting with shoppers in SoftBank’s Omotesando and Ginza stores this week, and prototypes will visit all 2,600 of its stores by the end of the year. The robot will go on sale in Feb. 2015 in Japan for JPY 198,000, or about $1,930.
Foxconn will manufacture Pepper for the Japanese mobile carrier, which owns a majority share of Aldeberan, as well as Sprint. In addition, SoftBank has established an R&D subsidiary called Cocoro SB to work on emotion technologies.
Pepper features an “emotional engine,” integrated with voice and visual recognition algorithms, that can analyze human expressions and voice tones. By the time the robot launches in February, it will also be imbued with self-learning capabilities. Pepper doesn’t do household chores, but is designed to speak English, French, Japanese, and Spanish. A 10-inch tablet is attached to its chest, offering an additional communications medium, as well as a chance to do more useful things like displaying marketing signage or the results of Internet searches.
Pepper offers “superior joint technology to realize graceful gestures,” says SoftBank, and indeed, the video of this week’s Pepper presentation suggests Pepper is something of a breakthrough in this regard. Pepper can even “dance,” despite its lack of legs, which are said to be a future possibility, according to IEEE Spectrum. For now, the 1.5-meter tall bot rolls around like a telepresence robot at up to three kilometers per hour.
Pepper can read negative emotions, but he is incapable of anger, and is programmed to spread love and make people happy, claims SoftBank. The robot can act as an in-store greeter, a party performer, or as a nanny and companion for the elderly.
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In addition to modifying its behavior and presentation in response to human emotions, Pepper can also record and quantify the emotions of others. This capability can be used for market research, as in tallying up the number of visitors who smiled at a product, or for reporting to a parent how a child responded after Pepper read them a book. Will family members use Pepper to spy on each other? Only time will tell. Pepper could be in for a few surprises.
Pepper is a more sophisticated, but less ambulatory cousin to Aldebaran’s smaller Nao robot, which has been a hit in robot soccer competitions and research laboratories, with more than 5,000 units in the field. They share the same Linux-based NaoQi operating system, letting Pepper run many Nao applications. This September, Aldeberan will host a conference about Pepper development, and may release its promised SDK at that point.
It’s unclear how open the Pepper SDK will be. The current kit is only partially open source, and developers must “pass a test” to gain access.
SoftBank has released a spec list for Pepper, with more details expected in September. No processor was listed, but the robot is said to offer WiFi and gigabit Ethernet connectivity, as well as four microphones, dual RGB cameras in its mouth and forehead, and a 3D depth sensor.
The robot’s chest has a gyro, and both the head and hands have touch sensors. Pepper’s base, which flairs out at the bottom, somewhat like Maleficent’s dress, houses sonar, laser, bumper, and gyro sensors. The 28 kilogram robot has 12-hour battery life, says SoftBank.
Pepper’s head and shoulders each have two degrees of freedom (DoF). Its elbow features left and right rotations, and its wrist can rotate in one direction. Each of the five fingers on its hands can rotate left and right. Its hip has 2 DoF, its knee one, and its base three. All these movements are controlled by 20 motors.
To help achieve Pepper’s remarkable upper-body flexibility, a proprietary mechanism measures electrical current on each motor, allowing the robot to detect forces, says IEEE Spectrum. In addition, Hall effect sensors help fine-tune motor positioning.
Pepper does YouTube
Emotional robots will not only offer entertainment and companionship for shut-ins, but will also be useful in industrial settings. For example, Rethink Wireless’s Baxter has some visual recognition capabilities and other features designed to let it work effectively with other factory workers. Researchers are working on other even more sensitive robots that can read human body language and anticipate their movements, or respond to tone and facial expressions.
Yet emotional robots have their critics as well. There’s no reason why robot engineers can’t flip the positive programming to build aggressive, even evil robots, for combat and other more nefarious purposes. Even if they’re programmed only for feel-good emotions, extensive interactions with emotional robots could pose problematic for humans. For example, they could jeopardize our ability to interact in a realistic manner with other humans, according to critics such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle.