Daily Dispatches
Kaname Hayashi, one of Pepper's developers, talks with the robot at SoftBank Mobile shop in Tokyo.
Associated Press/Photo by Koji Sasahara
Kaname Hayashi, one of Pepper's developers, talks with the robot at SoftBank Mobile shop in Tokyo.

Will Japan turn its elderly over to robotic companions?

Technology

Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, who says robots should be tender, has unveiled a cooing, gesturing humanoid on wheels that can decipher emotions. Son’s mobile phone company Softbank said last week the robot it has dubbed Pepper will go on sale in Japan in February for 198,000 yen ($1,900). Plans for overseas sales are under consideration but undecided.

The legless machine, which has gently gesticulating hands, rolled onto a stage in a Tokyo suburb, cooing and humming. It dramatically touched hands with Son in a Genesis or “E.T.” moment.

Son, who told the crowd his longtime dream was to go into the personal robot business, said Pepper has been programmed to read the emotions of people around it by recognizing expressions and vocal tones.

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“Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile,” he said.

Cuddly robots are not new in Japan, a nation dominated by “kawaii,” or cute culture. Many Japanese companies, including Hitachi Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp., not to mention universities and startups, have developed various robots to entertain and serve as companions. But no companion robot has emerged as a major market success yet.

Although developers have placed little emphasis on robots delivering practical work, the potential for intelligent machines will rise as the number of elderly requiring care in coming years is expected to soar in rapidly-aging Japan. Robotic technology is already used to check on the elderly and monitor their health and safety, but robots might also play a role in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Wendell Wallach, chair of the Technology and Ethics Study Group at Yale University, has written extensively about the appropriateness of some robotic tasks, even though robots may be perfectly capable of performing them.

“From a humanistic perspective, turning to robotic caregivers for the homebound and elderly is perceived [by many social theorists] as abusive or reflecting badly upon modern society, although robotic care is arguably better than no care at all,” Wallach wrote in a 2011 paper. “The appropriateness and ability of robots to serve as caregivers is commonly misunderstood by the public or misrepresented by those marketing the systems. The limited abilities of present day robotic devices can be obscured by the human tendency to anthropomorphize robots whose looks or behavior is faintly similar to that of humans.”

In the paper, Wallach calls for “a professional association or regulatory commission that evaluates the capabilities of systems and certifies their use for specific activities.”

Despite the concern Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran Robotics, the company that helped develop Pepper, believes robots will play an expanding role in human life.

“I’ve believed that the most important role of robots will be as kind and emotional companions to enhance our daily lives, to bring happiness, constantly surprise us and make people grow,” he said.

Pepper can dance and tell jokes, according to Softbank promotional material. The machine is currently on display at Softbank retailers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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