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Meet Pepper, The Companion Robot That Could Revolutionize The Way We Live (BrainJet)

A white humanoid robot with big eyes and a screen looks at the camera

Digital story, BrainJet, March 14, 2016

Photos by Allison Babka

In 2015, I was an editor at a local content startup, overseeing two websites and making sure that our stories and slideshows about history, "Star Wars," pets, geography, careers and weird stuff went viral.

I'm not going to lie; it was pretty sweet.

We also covered tech -- AI revolting, apps that were too good to be true, phone fails, etc. To that end, leadership decided that they wanted a presence at the 2016 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and for me to plan and write daily related content for five of our ten verticals before, during and after the event.

Basically, they wanted me, their only editor who also was a reporter, to run around Austin, act like a newsperson and then come back and teach other people how to do it.

Uh, sold.

Here's one of those stories for BrainJet.

Screenshot of Allison Babka's Facebook post about Pepper, a white humanoid robot

The robots have taken over! Well, down at South By Southwest 2016, at least.

A new future is on display at Austin’s famous SXSW tech, music and film festival this year, and a lot of what’s in store appears to center around what will become our new robotic friends. With panel discussions about how AI (artificial intelligence) might affect jobs and why human-like androids might attend meetings for you, the tech portion of SXSW was all about examining what’s surely becoming a reality. Fortunately, things look a little more impressive than the robot we saw in 1985’s “Rocky IV.”

One of the robots we’re most intrigued by is Pepper, which was developed by Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics and runs on IBM's cognitive computing engine "Watson.” A sleek, friendly robot that looks like it came from Sharper Image, Pepper has expressive eyes and flexible fingers, both of which simulate human-like emotions and actions. That's cool, but Pepper will find her (or his — you pick) biggest success as a thoughtful, interactive companion. She’s been developed to analyze human behavior over time and predict what her human friends will need before they even realize it themselves — and the more someone interacts with Pepper, the more she’ll learn.

Developers see Pepper being ideal in a number of roles. During a demo, Aldebaran's chief of innovation Rodolphe Gelin proposed that she easily could be a companion for the elderly.

"The robot could say, 'For two days you haven't talked to anyone except me. Do you want me to call your son or your grandchildren?’” Gelin explained.

Pepper also has an interactive tablet attached to her chest and scoots on wheels, making it easy for her to move to her companion and show them what they might need to see (a long-distance family wedding or face-to-face phone call, for example).

Developers mentioned that Pepper could be deployed in the retail or hospitality sectors. Her interactivity and intuition would be a boon for maintaining inventory counts, showing customers where to find items, developing sightseeing trails for tourists or promoting local events.

Even with her usefulness, Pepper still maintains an element of fun. Those expressive eyes of hers can read human emotion and facial changes, leading her to tailor an appropriate response (If you look sad, she’ll console you). Her human-like gestures and suggestions are what will turn her into a friend, though. Pepper raises her arms, fist-bumps with authority and waves you over to take selfies with her.

“You can stand next to me,” she told wide-eyed SXSW visitors in the IBM Cognitive Studio. “Say ‘cheese!’”

Aldebaran and IBM are still tweaking Pepper, but Gelin says that more than 7,000 Pepper models have been sold to consumers in Japan at about $2,000 each, and they’re being used primarily for companionship. But having Pepper fetch a beer from the refrigerator isn’t completely out of the question.

"We developed navigation to go into the kitchen," Gelin said. "Now, the next step is to grasp."

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