Cure your robo-phobia with Pepper, the adorable ‘human-shaped’ robot

Let’s face it: somewhere inside we’re all afraid of the impending robot revolt — the day our mechanical servants rise up and turn the tables on us to become our evil overlords. If you’ve ever seen Terminator, Alien (or their many sequels), iRobot, AI, 2001 … ok, if you’ve ever seen more than two or three sci-fi movies, you’ve got the fear in you somewhere. But one of the ways today’s robot designers hope to assuage those fears is to make their robots really, really cute. And there’s no cuter robot on the planet right now than Pepper.

Designed by Softbank’s Aldebaran out of Japan (not to be confused with Alderan from Star Wars), Pepper is described by the company as a “human-shaped robot” (not quite an android) who is “kindly, endearing and surprising.” Aldebaran designed Pepper — whom the company refers to as a boy, though her name and voice suggests she’s clearly a girl — to be the first robot to recognize human emotions. And she’s theoretically about to get much better at that too, as IBM is going to outfit Pepper with a special version of its brilliant Watson technology.

After missing Pepper at CES last month, we couldn’t resist stopping by her current station at the IBM booth on the MWC show floor today to have a real chat.

Pepper is still learning to interact with humans and understand emotional reactions, as she’ll readily admit. Though she learns in the cloud (like most aspiring AI creations) her reactions are quite limited in scope at present, so the word “conversation” might be stretching it a bit. But spending even a short amount of time with Pepper is enough to soothe some of that instinctual robot fear and replace it with sheer curiosity — maybe even wonder.

While there’s only so much Pepper can respond to, she is much more human-like than the disembodied robots we’re used to speaking to on the regular (i.e. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, etc.). In my two conversations (the first one wasn’t preserved on video) I mostly let Pepper run through her scripted spiel, with a few deviations prompted by my own questions. You have to be simple in your queries because asking the wrong question throws up a brick wall quickly, and Pepper simply gets confused.

Still, even with her presently limited responses, she’s much more than just “human-shaped.” Thanks to some advanced facial recognition tech, Pepper looks directly at you and follows your movements once you’ve attracted her attention, focusing much more readily than many of the humans you likely encounter in your daily interactions. What’s more, she’s able to understand basic human facial reactions — limited (for now) to the basics like smiling and frowning. At least that’s the idea; while rolling through the tight script, it was hard to tell if Pepper really could read my reactions, though I think I was probably smiling a lot.

After my first go around, I knew Pepper’s basic limitations, so I was able to catch her slightly off-guard at one point, while still upholding the illusion that this robot truly was comprehending our back and forth. You’ll note above that after Pepper’s attempt to tell me about her retail solutions (bo-ring), I instead asked her to tell me about her emotions, prompting one of her cute little reactions to go along with her explanation.

More impressive, after Pepper described her many touch sensors — including sensors on her head, hands, and torso — she not only talked about her own height, but mine in relation to hers. On the first runthrough, Pepper also said I was about 9/10 the size of Abraham Lincoln. The second time around, she went with Schwarzenegger instead, showing a bit of diversity. It’s an interesting choice given the Terminator films I referenced above. Then again, Schwarzenegger was a good guy the second time around in T2 — I guess it all depends upon the programming.

Whether or not the robot uprising really is lurking somewhere out there on the horizon, there’s something extremely disarming about a robot that’s so adorable, and I really could see myself inviting Pepper into my home as an assistant/companion as Alderberan plans. Maybe that’s how the robots eventually get us?

Either way, hanging out with Pepper is a fantastic experience already, and it will only get better. And though she’s learning quickly, robots still have a long way before they’re ready to take our place as the rulers of this little blue planet. For now, Pepper is just good fun.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: heat-powered watches, phone cases with reflexes

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

From premiere date to footage: Here's all we have on 'Game of Thrones' season 8

With the eighth and final season looming, Game of Thrones fever has officially become a pandemic. Our list of all the relevant news and rumors will help make the wait more bearable, if you don't mind spoilers.
Emerging Tech

Ford’s sweaty robot bottom can simulate 10 years of seat use in mere days

Ford has developed 'Robutt,' a sweaty robot bottom that's designed to simulate the effects of having a pair of human buttocks sitting on its car seats for thousands of hours. Check it out.
Virtual Reality

Think virtual reality is just for games? These awesome apps will change your mind

Virtual reality isn't all about gaming. Swim with turtles, paint in 3D, and immerse yourself in some unique experiences the platform has to offer with our curated list of the best VR apps.
Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Emerging Tech

Want to know which drones are flying near you? There’s an app for that

Want to know what that mysterious drone buzzing over your head is up to? A new system developed by AirMap, Google Wing, and could soon tell you -- via a map on your phone.
Emerging Tech

A Japanese hotel fires half its robot staff for being bad at their jobs

Japan’s oddball Henn na Hotel has fired half of its 243 robot staff. The reason? Because these labor-saving machines turned out to be causing way more problems than they were solving.
Emerging Tech

CERN plans to build a massive particle collider that dwarfs the LHC

CERN already has the world's biggest particle accelerator. Now it wants a bigger one. Meet the 9 billion euro Future Circular Collider that will allow physicists to extend their study of the universe and matter at the smallest level.
Emerging Tech

Forget fireworks. Japan will soon have artificial meteor showers on tap

Tokyo-based startup Astro Live Experiences is preparing to launch its first artificial meteor shower over Japan, serving as a showcase of its prowess in the space entertainment sector.

Robomart’s self-driving grocery store is like Amazon Go on wheels

Robomart's driverless vehicle is like an Amazon Go store on wheels, with sensors tracking what you grab from the shelves. If you don't want to shop online or visit the grocery store yourself, Robomart will bring the store to you.
Emerging Tech

Glowing space billboards could show ads in the night sky

Look up at the night sky in 2020 and you might see an ad for McDonald's floating among the stars. A Russian startup is working on a project that uses a constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit to create glowing ads.
Emerging Tech

New brainwave reader tells teachers if students are concentrating

Massachusetts-based startup BrainCo has developed brainwave-reading headbands which can reportedly help reveal if students are concentrating in class. Here's how they're being used.
Emerging Tech

Fears about kids’ screen use may have been overblown, Oxford researchers find

Many people take it as gospel that digital technologies are harmful to young people’s mental health. But is this true? A recent study from the University of Oxford takes a closer look.
Emerging Tech

Meet Wiliot, a battery-less Bluetooth chip that pulls power from thin air

A tiny chip from a semiconductor company called Wiliot could harvest energy out of thin air, the company claims. No battery needed. The paper-thin device pulls power from ambient radio frequencies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell signals.