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Pepper robot’s future uncertain as SoftBank suspends production

Reports of Pepper’s demise are greatly exaggerated, but the robot’s long-term future is certainly hanging in the balance.

Marketed as “the world’s first humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions,” owner SoftBank had high hopes for Pepper when it went on sale for 198,000 yen ($1,790) in 2015.

But an apparent lack of interest among businesses and individuals prompted the Japanese tech giant to halt production of the 120-cm-tall (3.9 foot) robot last summer, according to a Reuters report this week that also said only 27,000 units were ever made.

Another media outlet quoted a SoftBank spokesperson as denying that Pepper has been consigned to the trash heap, insisting the company will resume production of the robot “if demand recovers.”

Pepper was created in collaboration with French robotics firm Aldebaran, which SoftBank later bought, and manufactured by Foxconn in Taiwan.

The humanoid robot can hold a basic conversation and apparently read the emotions of the person it’s conversing with and respond accordingly. SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son said at the time of Pepper’s launch that its ability to dance, sing, and tell jokes meant the robot could even act as a friendly companion and family entertainer.

Besides targeting individual consumers, SoftBank also worked to deploy Pepper in places such as department stores, museums, restaurants, airports, and office receptions around the world, but its limited functionality left the company struggling to make the robot a success.

Even in Japan, where Pepper was a regular fixture inside SoftBank’s cell phone stores, the robot was often ignored by customers or simply switched off by staff.

SoftBank is reportedly now in talks with Aldebaran about possible job cuts as the Toky0-based company considers scaling back its once lofty robotics-based ambitions.

If SoftBank does eventually turn its back on Pepper, it certainly won’t be the first company to make such a move. Honda, for example, retired its impressive Asimo biped robot in 2018 after decades of development, while Sony stopped selling its Aibo robot dog in 2006 before launching a new version in 2018. With that in mind, there’s hope for Pepper yet.

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Trevor Mogg
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