Mum Pepper's mood swings keep Son's robot dreams on hold

posted on October 29, 2016

Japan's obsession with robots isn't just a cliche. Companies have been trying to drum up enthusiasm for them for years, with little success.

Pepper, a humanoid machine carrying the hopes of SoftBank Group Corp.'s billionaire founder Masayoshi Son, was supposed to change that. Promoted as the first robot to be endowed with emotions, the company marketed Pepper aggressively after it was unveiled in 2014, promising the gadget was sophisticated enough for tasks usually handled by shop clerks, receptionists and translators.

"It's not there to have a conversation," said Junichi Nishi, a municipal official in Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture, a city of about 140,000. "We use it primarily as a tablet," he said, referring to the touch screen attached to the robot's chest.

Now, it looks like Pepper is destined to join Honda Motor Co.'s soccer-playing Asimo and Sony Corp.'s Qrio humanoids as the latest cool-but-impractical robot to come out of Japan. Conversations with those involved in the machine's development suggest that all the elements for success were in place, only to crumble due to bad decision making and missed opportunities.

Sebastien Cagnon is an engineer who worked on Pepper and came to SoftBank through its 2012 acquisition of French company Aldebaran Robotics SA. That year, he went to an Apple Store with his colleagues and was told that the robot had to be able to offer customer service that was as good as that offered by its employees.

"Seeing all those Apple employees fuss over the few customers in the store made me realize just how far we had to go," said Cagnon, who quit SoftBank in March to start his own robotics consulting business.

Aldebaran and SoftBank's cultures didn't mesh well. Engineers in Japan fumed when their French counterparts disappeared for weeks on vacation. Aldebaran employees, accustomed to a flat structure, suddenly found many of their decisions second-guessed by an army of managers in Tokyo.

source by japantimes
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