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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Tech firm unveils 'emotional' robot

Published 05/06/2014 | 10:52

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A Japanese technology firm has unveiled a robot designed for companionship which can decipher human emotions.

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Softbank, which has previously specialised in telecoms and internet, is entering the robotics business with its humanoid-on-wheels called Pepper.

The company said Pepper will go on sale in Japan in February for 198,000 yen (£1,150). Overseas sales plans are under consideration but undecided.

The machine, which has no legs, but has gently gesticulating hands, appeared on stage in a Tokyo suburb, cooing and humming. It dramatically touched hands with Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son in a Genesis or ET moment.

Mr Son, who told the crowd that his long-time dream was to go into the personal robot business, said Pepper has been programmed to read the emotions of people around it by recognising expressions and tone of voice.

"Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile," he said.

The 48in tall, 62lb white robot, which has no hair but two large doll-like eyes and a flat-panel display on its chest, was developed jointly with Aldebaran Robotics, which designs, produces and sells autonomous humanoid robots.

Pepper can get information from cloud-based databases and comes with safety features to avoid crashes and falls, and its capabilities can grow by installing more robot applications, according to Softbank.

Besides featuring the latest voice recognition software, Pepper is loaded with more than a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base.

It also has two cameras and four microphones on its head and has Wi-Fi and ethernet networking capabilities.

Cuddly robots are not new in Japan, a nation dominated by "kawaii", or cute culture, but no companion robot has been a major market success yet.

Sony discontinued its Aibo pet dog robot in 2006, despite an outcry from its fans. At that time, Sony had developed a child-shaped entertainment robot similar to Pepper but much smaller, capable of dances and other charming moves, but it never became a commercial product.

Honda has developed the walking, talking Asimo robot, but that is too sophisticated and expensive for home use, and appears in Honda showrooms and gala events only. Even then, it is prone to glitches because of its complexity.

Many other Japanese companies, including Hitachi and Toyota, not to mention universities and start-ups, have developed various robots, big and small, that entertain and serve as companions.

There is little emphasis on delivering on practical work, in contrast to industrial robots at factories and military robots for war.

But the potential is great for intelligent machines as the number of elderly people requiring care is expected to soar in Japan in coming years. Robotics are already used to check on the elderly and monitor their health and safety, but they might also play a role in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In the demonstration, Pepper sang: "I want to be loved."

Softbank said Pepper can dance and tell jokes. It will be on display at Softbank retailers from tomorrow, the company said.

Softbank, which boasts more than 100 million subscribers globally, has been growing rapidly as a mobile carrier in Japan, boosted by being the first to offer Apple's iPhone.

Aldebaran Robotics has offices in France, China, Japan and the US and is 78.5% owned by Softbank.

Aldebaran has produced more than 5,000 of its Nao humanoid, its first product, which is used for research and educational purposes.

Press Association

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