Humanoid Robot Pepper Pauses Production
The humanoid robot named Pepper has been semi-retired by SoftBank, at least for now. The Japanese corporation has decided to pause production until they see a need for more, even as interest in virtual humans and robot assistants has mushroomed over the last couple of years.
Softbank began manufacturing Pepper back in 2014, but only ever made 27,000, according to Reuters. The $1,790 robot requires a $360 a month subscription to function, which might have been considered too high a price for the educational and research facilities most interested in Pepper and its emotion-reading AI. The four-foot 62-pound robot did make plenty of other appearances for other purposes, however. Pepper promoted AI in education by testifying to a British parliamentary select committee and served as a greeter at the HSBC bank in New York and both the Munich and Montreal airports. Several Pepper robots even substituted as cheerleaders for a baseball game last summer during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Pepper appeared to be autonomous, the robot was often controlled remotely, implying that the AI was smarter and more functional than in reality.
The pause on Pepper and its limitations haven’t dampened interest in the idea of mobile, AI-enabled helpers. Healthcare in particular has a lot of opportunities for combinations of robotic bodies and advanced virtual assistants. They vary in detail, but all tend to offer communications and caregiving in some form. Their bodies include the scooter mixed with a tablet computer named temi, which follows owners about the home, and the cat-faced Mylo from CR Robotics, designed to be a friendly, comforting image for people with Alzheimer’s to interact with on a daily basis. For a more explicitly humanoid robot, Singularity Studio and Hanson Robotics created Grace, which looks like the head and upper torso of a woman and can converse with users about a range of subjects, particularly physical and mental health.
Beyond healthcare and promotional activity, smart robots have been somewhat limited. There hasn’t been as much movement from the bigger players in voice AI like Amazon and Google, for instance. That may be changing soon, though. Amazon reportedly had more than 800 people working on its rumored Alexa-enabled robot, one of the biggest projects ever conceived at Amazon’s Lab126, the birthplace of Alexa and the Echo smart speaker. The robot, supposedly named Vesta after the Roman goddess of the hearth, has been under development for four years and is expected to be a kin of mobile smart speaker packed with sensors. There’s no word on what kind of face it might have, but with Jeff Bezos newly retired, he might have some free time to record facial expressions.