Pepper, the Emotional Robot, Learns How to Feel Like an American
Pepper is about four feet tall, looks like a person (except for the wheels where its legs should be), and has more emotional intelligence than your average toddler. It uses facial recognition to pick up on sadness or hostility, voice recognition to hear concern…and it’s actually pretty good at all that. Over 7,000 Peppers greet guests, answer questions, and play with kids in Japanese homes. And by the end of the year it’ll be on sale in the US—but not before software engineers here get a crack at remaking its soul.
Softbank Robotics, Pepper’s maker, knows that emotional interactions in the US won’t look the same as they do in Japan. So in conjunction with Google—as the companies announced at Google’s developer conference in May—Softbank is opening Pepper’s software developer kit. That’s right: It’s an android you can program in Android.
Robots are getting more emotive in general. Jibo, a tabletop digital helper—think of a more charming Amazon Echo—understands colloquial speech, expresses a range of emotions, and even develops its own opinions. The Parorobot substitutes for puppies and kittens in animal therapy sessions in extended care facilities where live animals would pose logistical difficulties, and some elementary schools are testing robots to help teach kids with special needs.
But Pepper stands out—literally. It’s humanoid, mobile, and has a tablet display as well as the ability to speak. And it genuinely seems to want to please people.
That won’t be easy. “We tend to treat robots different from other appliances, particularly when they have this anthropomorphic form,” says Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT. In other words, robots that look like people (or animals) get treated like people (or animals). “We see people treating these machines like social actors,” Darling says.
On the plus side, that might mean people will remember their manners when they deal with machines. After all, violence against a robot probably doesn’t hurt the robot, but it might make the perpetrator into kind of a jerk. Just as parents have long raised concern about the effect of violent video games, Darling says violence against robots might desensitize kids to violence against people too. Earlier this year a parent wrote about how his child’s behavior changed in response to using Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant. Alexa doesn’t require “please” or “thank you” to process commands, which he said was making his child rude to other people as well.
Sure, maintaining emotional decorum with a robot could make for a pretty weird world. It’s…perhaps inauthentic. “We have to be careful because from early ages, children experience performances of care as though they were care,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.
Pepper is designed to comfort people when it senses sadness and do something silly when it senses those around it are playful. That’s real human interaction—but no one thinks Pepper is sympathetic, or funny. At least, not yet.
Pepper isn’t a butler. It can’t vacuum or fold fitted sheets (though be honest: Neither can you, right?). Its humanoid shape is supposed to make it easier to express emotions to. “We designed Pepper’s form to incentivize engagement,” says Steve Carlin, vice president of SoftBank Robotics America. “Its height, shape, the fact that it has arms that can gesticulate—are all designed to show empathy.”
Exactly how to turn all that physicality into empathy isn’t clear from the SDK alone; SoftBank engineers say they’ll have forums for would-be Pepper-programmers to ask what kind of gesture or language conveys the right tone for, say, assisting someone in a car dealership or a grocery store. Right now, the SDK lets coders plan out moves and language and watch the robot execute in an animated sandbox. So at least it gets to practice.
And it’ll need to. Roboticists expect that US homes are going to be more skeptical of having robots around the house than Japanese society has been. Maybe because Americans worry that no matter how much they teach the robots, the robots are going to teach them, too.