Siri and other personal assistants are useful on our smartphones and tablets, but one company is taking it to the next level by creating a robotic personal assistant: SoftBank has Pepper, a real live robot designed to help people with everyday tasks.
Pepper is a robot designed for personal use, as both a helper and companion, particularly for the elderly. This is a first — a robot designed for the home. The robot is programmed to even listen for tones of voice to determine emotional states. SoftBank plans to introduce it to the Japanese market in February. It will retail for just under $2,000 in U.S. dollars, expensive in the short term, but cheaper than many caregivers in the long run.
The robot is diminutive. Photos of it with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son show that the robot is only about waist height with a sleek white design. Reuters reported that it speaks with a high-pitched boyish voice. It will be on display in Japanese SoftBank stores.
Bringing this real life personal assistant to life was a global effort. French robotics company Aldebaran designed the robot. (SoftBank has a majority stake in Aldebaran that it purchased in 2012 reported BBC.) Taiwanese firm Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd. is manufacturing the robots. From there, they will be shipped to Japan for purchase.
Part of the reason why this robotic personal assistant is being brought to life is strictly demographic; Japan has a rapidly aging population. There simply are not enough young people to care for their elders due to shifts in population. Robots like Pepper are being designed to help fill that gap. Think Siri, but in physical form and designed to be a companion, caregiver or medical assistant instead of tracking down the nearest pizza place.
While robotic companions sound like something out of science fiction, they are basically a hardware eversion of the personal assistant technology in some smartphones and tablets. Some developers have been working on these robotic assistants before personal assistant technology went on the market. Japanese firm Honda has been working on a similar robot known as ASIMO for more than fifteen years.
Robots are making their way into our homes subtly. The robotic vacuum Roomba has been a relative success (to the delightment and horror of cats and dogs everywhere). Robotic alarm clocks that go off and then run away are another simple robot some people have adopted into their homes. Both are still an investment. A Roomba starts at about $350 on the company’s website. A Clocky alarm clock will set you back about $40 before shipping. Robots are not cheap right now, including the $2,000 Pepper robot. However, assuming they follow the lead of other tech products like computers, they will get cheaper with time. Until that day, plenty of videos of Pepper, Asimo, and other robots are easily available online for enthusiasts.