Friday 24 November 2017

Rising soon ... the cute robot who thinks and works in Japanese is set to go on sale

Japanese telecoms group Softbank is to incorporate artificial intelligence technology from IBM into its empathetic robot Pepper, pictured, which goes on sale later this month.

An AI engine called Watson is used in healthcare, travel and insurance services in English, but an adaptation was needed to make it work in Japanese, said Steve Gold, vice president of the IBM Watson Group.

Unlike other cognitive technology that responds rather mechanically, Watson can learn over time like a human brain, and understands the concept of probability, which makes it very sophisticated and more human-like for applications, according to IBM.

"It depends on the context of the conversation as to what the right answer would be," as opposed to how a computer would generally try to answer correctly, Mr Gold said. "The world is seldom absolute."

Watson will be used in Pepper, which is going on sale in Japan this month for 198,000 yen (€1,460), and will make for a smarter, more charming companion, he said.

Pepper's face is a bit like C3PO's in 'Star Wars' and the robot moves around on wheels. In early demonstrations it was a bit mechanical in its responses, but Mr Gold said Watson will change that.

For example, two plus two is four in arithmetic but in another context it could refer to a car design, Mr Gold said. Watson is designed to figure out context and know which answer is more likely.

A call centre using Watson will get the caller to the right solution more quickly and make for a less frustrating consumer experience, he said.

But the complexity of Japanese, including thousands of characters with various meanings, with several phonetic options, presented a challenge even for Watson, Mr Gold said.

Pepper is not expected to generate big profits immediately, but it points to a new lifestyle, promising to turn into a real business in 30 years. Besides Pepper, Softbank will use Watson inside the company, resell it in Japan to businesses such as call centres and work with other companies to develop new applications.

Softbank, the first mobile carrier to sell the iPhone in Japan, has widespread global investments including Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, which listed in New York last year. Softbank is also aggressively investing in India.

Pepper will first be sold only to software developers who have reserved a robot, according to Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son. Consumers will not be able to get one until sometime between June and August, he said, adding that details of the sales plan were undecided and an announcement will be made.

Addressing the reason for the delay, he said giving it first to developers would mean more fun applications are available when consumers get the robot, implying it is not quite ready as a product.

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