Pepper is a child-height human-shaped robot described as having been designed to be a genuine companion that perceives and acts upon a range of human emotions.
SoftBank, the Japanese telecom giant, acquired Aldebaran Robotics and commissioned the development of Pepper. Subsequently SoftBank joint ventured with Alibaba and Foxconn to form a development, production and marketing entity for the robots. There has been much fanfare about Pepper, particularly about it’s ability to use its body movement and tone of voice to communicate in a way designed to feel natural and intuitive.
The number of Peppers sold to date is newsworthy. As of today, there are likely close to 10,000 Peppers out in the world. Online sales have been 1,000 units each month for the last seven months with additional sales to businesses such as Nestle for their coffee shops and SoftBank for their telecom stores.
At around $1,600 per robot, 10,000 robots equates to $16 million in sales but Peppers are sold on a subscription contract that includ es a network data plan and equipment insurance. This costs $360 per month and, over 36 months, brings the total cost of ownership to over $14,000.
In a promotional effort, Pepper and a SoftBank publicity team came to the London offices of the Financial Times for an introduction and visit.
People in the FT offices were definitely attracted, amused and happy with the initial experience of being introduced to Pepper. They laughed at Peppers failures and patted its head to make it feel better. But Pepper failed in every way to (1) be a companion, (2) recognize emotional cues, (3) be able to converse reliably and intelligently, and (4) provide any level of service other than first-time entertainment.
There’s no doubt that Pepper is an impressive engineering feat and that it is an advertising draw. However the emotion recognition aspects of Pepper didn’t appear to be important in both videos even though that is supposed to be Pepper’s strength. The entertainment value seemed to be what attracted the crowds. This temporary phenomena isn’t likely to persevere over time. In fact, this was shown to be true in China where restaurants began using rudimentary robots as mobile servers and busbots. In the last few months, however, there have been reports of those robots being retired because their entertainment value wore off and their inflexibility as real servers became evident.
The connection of Pepper to a telecom provider and the sales it brings in the form of 2 and 3 year data service contracts, can be big business to that provider – SoftBank is the exclusive provider of those data services in Japan. An example of the value of that business can be seen by a surge in share price of Taiwan telecom company Asia Pacific Telecom on news that the company will begin selling Pepper robots in Taiwan.