Childlike robot with 'heart' to go on sale

Childlike robot with 'heart' to go on sale

Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank Corp, centre, Terry Gou, chairman of Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group, right, and Jack Ma, executive chairman of China's Alibaba Group Holding Limited pose for pictures with SoftBank's human-like robot named 'Pepper' during a news conference in Chiba, Japan yesterday. (AP photo)
Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank Corp, centre, Terry Gou, chairman of Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group, right, and Jack Ma, executive chairman of China's Alibaba Group Holding Limited pose for pictures with SoftBank's human-like robot named 'Pepper' during a news conference in Chiba, Japan yesterday. (AP photo)

URAYASU, Japan: Technology company SoftBank Corp's Pepper robot is going on sale in Japan on Saturday, equipped with a "heart'' designed to not only recognise human emotions but react with simulations of anger, joy and irritation.

The robot, which has no legs and moves on wheels, was shown to reporters and guests at a Tokyo area theatre yesterday. It has a hairless head and moving arms and went through a year of software development after first being announced.

It glided proudly on to the stage, conversed with celebrity guests, did a dance, sang a birthday song and demonstrated how it could record family life in photos, and serve as a companion. It appeared to respond with joy when it was praised or stroked.

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said the company was preparing for a global sales launch with partners Alibaba Group Holding Limited of China and FoxConn Technology Group of Taiwan. They will each take a 20% stake in SoftBank's robotics unit, valued at a combined 29 billion yen ($240 million), to help with software and manufacturing.

Details of when and where it will go on sale outside Japan were still undecided. But Son said the first overseas sales would likely happen next year, with test sales likely happening later this year. It sells for 198,000 yen ($1,600) in Japan and 1,000 of the robots will be available each month.

According to Son, the robot will develop its own personality of sorts, depending on how people interact with it. "Pepper can remember faces and is programmed to be happy when it is given attention but becomes irritated and depressed when it is not. It will also cheer up sad people and try to mitigate suffering.''

Son gushed with emotion himself when explaining to reporters and guests what was in store for the 121-centimetre-tall, 28-kilogram white Pepper, stressing the company's commitment to robots, especially smart robots that can provide emotional interaction in everyday life.

The CEO said the inspiration for Pepper came from his childhood memories of Astro Boy, an animated Japanese character which did not have a heart and could not understand why people cried. He made a point of programming Pepper to look like it weeps: lights well up in its round eyes. It has artificial intelligence technology from the International Business Machines Corp.

Although Son acknowledged some may not agree with the idea of making robots that appeared to have human traits, he said such technology could be transformative.

"The world already has robots that help in manufacturing, and mankind has already made the car and the plane, but what it needs is love,'' he said with a straight face. "Our vision is to offer a robot with love.''

In the demonstration yesterday, Pepper carried on a realistic conversation. When an actor showered it with praise, it responded with a childlike voice: "Please say more,'' and "Really?''

SoftBank will also make Pepper available for commercial uses from the autumn, including renting out the robot for 1,500 yen ($12) an hour to retailers and companies for their reception desks. 

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