It was launched to much fanfare seven years ago, but it appears Pepper, the friendly humanoid robot, may soon be on the scrapheap.
The $1,790 (£1,290) machine, which is battling to stave off retirement after its maker said last month that production had been ‘paused for a while’, keeps getting fired from jobs.
It has been sacked from roles at a nursing home, funeral business and bank because people ‘expect the intelligence of a human’, one expert said of Pepper, which is one of the first humanoid robots able to ‘read’ emotions.
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Sacked: Pepper the robot (pictured), which is battling to stave off retirement after its maker said last month that production had been ‘paused for a while’ , keeps getting fired from jobs
It has lost jobs at a nursing home, funeral business (pictured) and bank because people ‘expect the intelligence of a human’, one expert said of Pepper, which is able to ‘read’ emotions
Despite the failures, SoftBank Robotics said Pepper still has a number of other jobs, including teaching children, taking temperatures at hospitals and entertaining diners at a cafe in Tokyo
WHAT ARE PEPPER ROBOTS?
Emotion-reading robots called ‘Pepper’ were designed by Japanese company Softbank Robotics.
The expressive humanoid is designed to identify and react to human emotions.
Equipped with cameras and sensors the robots are 4ft (1.2 metres) tall and weigh 62lb (28kg).
They can react to human emotions by offering comfort or laughing if told a joke.
Developers say the robots can understand 80 per cent of conversations.
They also have the ability to learn from conversations in both Japanese and English.
They have already been used in a number of places, including banks, shops and hotels.
In 2016 SoftBank replaced staff at a new phone store in Tokyo with 10 humanoid Pepper robots to give suggestions and answer questions from customers.
Nescafe also hired 1,000 Pepper robots to work in home appliance stores across Japan to help customers looking for a Nespresso coffee machine.
Another robot developed by Softbank Robotics was deployed at a hotel on Lake Garda.
Named Robby Pepper, the robot was taught a list of questions such as the locations of the spa and restaurants and their opening hours.
The firm says the humanoid companions have even been programmed to recognise the needs of elderly care home residents.
Tablets on the robots’ chests mean residents can Skype call people, watch or listen to something, or be reminded when to take pills.
These robots represent an expansion in automation, but one that is likely to be scaled up only when better artificial intelligence is developed.
It was billed as a great home companion for elderly people and promoted for use in public places such as railway stations and shops, but never really caught on as a commercially viable product.
Only 27,000 units were ever made, in part due to its hefty price tag, and Japanese conglomerate SoftBank has said it will only start making the 4ft, 62lb robot again ‘when it is needed’.
That is unlikely to be anytime soon considering the number of jobs it has been fired from, including reading scripture to mourners.
Nissei Eco Co., a plastics manufacturer with a sideline in the funeral business, hired the child-sized robot, dressed it in Buddhist clergy robes and programmed it to chant scriptures.
But it kept breaking down during practice runs so the company ended its lease of the robot and sent it back to the manufacturer.
Takayuki Furuta, head of the Future Robotics Technology Center at Chiba Institute of Technology, which wasn’t involved in Pepper’s development, told the Wall Street Journal: ‘Because it has the shape of a person, people expect the intelligence of a human.
‘The level of the technology completely falls short of that. It’s like the difference between a toy car and an actual car.’
In 2016, a Tokyo nursing home brought in three Pepper robots to sing and hold exercise classes for the elderly, at a cost of about $900 (£650) a month.
But the experiment failed because the machine’s exercise moves were limited and it took a series of unplanned breaks after malfunctioning.
Mizuho Financial Group Inc introduced Pepper as an employee in 2015 and stationed it in the bank lobby to recommend financial products to customers.
A spokesperson has since said the robot is no longer there but wouldn’t say why.
Despite the failures, SoftBank Robotics said Pepper still has a number of other jobs, including teaching children, taking temperatures at hospitals and entertaining diners at a cafe in Tokyo.
It also acted as a concierge at hotels where Covid-19 patients were housed during the pandemic.
When it was launched in 2014, the humanoid was billed as a ‘new species’ of robot capable of recognising basic emotions such as happiness and sadness by looking at people’s faces.
Pepper uses an ’emotional engine’ and a cloud-based artificial intelligence to study gestures, expressions and human speech tones.
However, despite being featured at a number of conferences and high-profile events it has mainly been used as a research and educational tool for schools, colleges and universities.
As well as announcing a pause in production last month, SoftBank is also reportedly slashing jobs at its global robotics operation in France.
About half of the 330 jobs there are set to be axed, according to Reuters.
Companionship? SoftBank Robotics said the robots had been programmed to recognise the needs of elderly care home residents (pictured)
When it was launched in 2014, the humanoid was billed as a ‘new species’ of robot capable of recognising basic emotions such as happiness and sadness by looking at people’s faces
Costly: Only 27,000 units were ever made, in part due to its $1,790 price tag, and Japanese firm SoftBank has said it will only start making the 4ft, 62lb robot again ‘when it is needed’
In June, a company spokesperson told AFP: ‘We are temporarily suspending production of Pepper but are ready to restart anytime depending on inventory situations.
‘Pepper has chiefly been a rental service and you don’t need a lot of new units.’
However, not everyone sees the potential retirement of Pepper as bad news.
Close to retirement? Pepper is pictured left and, right, after being turned off next to a fridge
Robotics expert Noel Sharkey previously told the BBC that he would be thrilled if this was the end of the humanoid.
‘Pepper did a lot to harm genuine robotics research by giving an often false impression of a bright cognitive being that could hold conversations,’ he said.
‘It was mostly remote-controlled with a human conversing through its speakers. Deceiving the public in this way is dangerous and gives the wrong impression of the capabilities of AI in the real world.’
WILL YOUR JOB BE TAKEN BY A ROBOT? PHYSICAL JOBS ARE AT THE GREATEST RISK
Physical jobs in predictable environments, including machine-operators and fast-food workers, are the most likely to be replaced by robots.
Management consultancy firm McKinsey, based in New York, focused on the amount of jobs that would be lost to automation, and what professions were most at risk.
The report said collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines.
This could displace large amounts of labour – for instance, in mortgages, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing.
Conversely, jobs in unpredictable environments are least are risk.
The report added: ‘Occupations such as gardeners, plumbers, or providers of child- and eldercare – will also generally see less automation by 2030, because they are technically difficult to automate and often command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.’