If the thought of a humanoid robot in your home makes your skin crawl, meet the friendly Pepper.
Pepper is a cute, wisecracking personal robot designed to bring joy to everyone, and Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank wants people to start buying it next year for the price of a high-end PC.
The phone giant unveiled the autonomous, sophisticated machine on Thursday along with partners Aldebaran Robotics of France and China's Foxconn, the world's largest manufacturer of electronics.
Equipped with an array of audio, visual and tactile sensors, Pepper is 120 centimeters tall and weighs about 28 kg. It has two arms and rolls around on a wheeled base, with a lithium-ion battery that can power it for at least 12 hours.
Its chest bears a 10.1-inch touchscreen that can be used to communicate along with its voice and gestures. Its main function is to interact with people, according to SoftBank.
"We want to have a robot that will maximize people's joy and minimize their sadness," SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son told a press conference outside Tokyo.
The event began with a darkened stage and several minutes of theatrics as Son presented Pepper with a heart-shaped object. The robot then began interacting with him with a high-pitched voice, and then introduced itself to journalists in Japanese.
Pepper is the world's first personal robot that can read people's emotions, Son said, and it uses voice-recognition technology and proprietary algorithms to analyze people's feelings from their facial expressions and tone of voice.
It will go on sale in Japan in February 2015 with a base price of ¥198,000 (US$1,929).
In a series of pre-programmed demonstrations on stage, Pepper bantered with Son and Japanese celebrities. Its head and arms moved smoothly as it rolled around, though at one point it failed to respond to a question and seemed to go blank for a bit.
Pepper doesn't have 100 percent recognition of what people say to it, Son admitted, adding it will improve with time.
Its NAOqi operating system, a nod to Aldebaran's pint-sized Nao robot, has an "emotion engine" as well as cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) to help it understand people and respond to them.
"With cute robots, so cute that people want them at home, very easy to interact with and which are connected to the Internet, look at this potential we are opening," said Aldebaran CEO Bruno Maisonnier. "Many things can be done to improve education, healthcare, entertainment, flow management, you name it."
Robots will greatly change people's daily lives just like the PC, Internet and mobile phones did in the past, added the head of Aldebaran, which is owned about 78 percent by SoftBank.
Although Pepper might understand if you ask it to clean the dishes or sweep the floor, it won't comply: It only has 20 motors and would likely have difficulty picking up delicate objects.
Pepper will debut at two SoftBank Mobile stores in Tokyo on Friday. From next year, it will initially be sold in SoftBank stores in Japan and through online channels. Overseas sales will follow at some point, Son said, and Pepper's emotional expressions will be customized to fit various cultures. So far, Pepper can speak English, Japanese, French and Spanish. More languages are expected in the next few months.
Softbank is not aiming for initial profitability with Pepper, and is offering it at a relatively low price compared to most robotic technologies in order to popularize it.
Pepper owners could be charged a monthly fee for cloud-based services but that has yet to be decided, Son said. Future applications or content provided through the robot could be an additional source of revenue.
If Foxconn manufactures thousands or a million Peppers, costs would fall, and the business could move toward profitability, Son said.
Lem Fugitt, a robotics observer who runs Robots-Dreams.com, said, "Pepper will have a very difficult time getting off the ground as a viable consumer product -- the demand and compelling need just isn't there yet."
"Everyone seems surprised at the lowball price point. I'm assuming that it has to be coupled with some data subscription model, so $1,980 is only a starting figure. They have to be targeting a long-term revenue stream that locks customers in, just like they do with smartphones," he added.
Other multinational Japanese companies, such as Honda, Sony and Toyota, have developed sophisticated humanoid robots, but none has successfully commercialized them due to their high cost, lack of useful functions and limitations to AI.
SoftBank has established a cloud services company called Cocoro SB for Pepper's cloud AI functions. SDKs (software development kits) will be provided for developers to open up a wide range of apps for the robot.
The debut of Pepper is the realization of a 25-year dream for Son, as the CEO recounted how he was inspired by Astro Boy, a popular science fiction robot created by manga artist Osamu Tezuka in the early 1950s. The heroic machine became a template for friendly humanoid robots in Japan, both in fiction and reality.
"Pepper is a baby step in making robots with emotion," Son said. "Our vision is to create affectionate robots than understand people's feelings and then autonomously take action. So the joy of a family will become the joy of the robot."
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.