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Pepper: SoftBank’s ’emotional’ robot goes on sale Saturday

Feeling lonely? Looking for a new best friend? If you don’t mind a bot as your buddy, your next chum might well be Pepper, a SoftBank creation that the company says can make sense of human emotions and respond accordingly.

The 120-cm-tall, 29-kg robot goes on sale in Japan this weekend and should hit stores in the U.S. and Europe next year. At a special event held near Tokyo this week to celebrate the sales launch, the interactive social robot reportedly “glided proudly onto the stage, conversed with celebrity guests, did a dance [and] sang a birthday song.”

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Addressing the audience, SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son insisted it’s not only the lonely that can benefit from Pepper’s presence. Businesses, too, will be able to use the robot to greet customers. Indeed, an earlier version of the humanoid robot has been doing just that at several of the company’s Tokyo stores over the last year.

Schools could also use Pepper in the classroom, while retirement homes may be interested in using him to entertain and communicate with old folk.

SoftBank’s creation was unveiled a year ago, though in the intervening 12 months the machine has gone through quite a few changes. At the beginning, while it was capable of reading other people’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to determine their emotions, Pepper couldn’t express any emotion of his own.

The model going on sale, however, is now able to “generate emotions autonomously by processing information from his cameras, touch sensors, accelerometer and other sensors,” SoftBank says in a release.

According to the robot’s creator, each Pepper will develop a personality over time depending on how the owner interacts with it, and convey his feelings via changes in body posture, tone of voice, and color changes shown on his “heart display,” essentially a tablet strapped to his torso.

Developers are in the process of creating apps “to make life fun with an emotional robot,” with around 200 available for download at launch.

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Emotions aside, Pepper’s multiple motors and articulated joints enable him to pull some pretty slick moves (check the video above), making him an entertaining addition to any home, though as Pepper currently only has wheels to get around, it’d have to be one without any stairs.

SoftBank, a company better known for its smartphone and Internet business than friendly robots, plans to knock out about a thousand Peppers a month in partnership with Foxconn.

Pepper comes with a 198,000-yen price tag (about $1600), though you’ll also have to cough up an extra $200 or so to cover various service charges.

Judging by Son’s comments, the SoftBank CEO is confident he’s created something special with Pepper. He told his audience that while we already have robots to build things, what humanity really needs is love, adding, “Our vision is to offer a robot with love.” No doubt Pepper was right beside him teary-eyed as he processed his boss’s profound remarks.