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Built In Japan; Pepper Is A Robot That Knows How You're Feeling

I've blogged about the uncanny valley before, and how it's one of the key reasons robots haven't managed to gain more widespread acceptance in mainstream culture (well...that, and the glut of science fiction literature that deals with a machine uprising). Many attempts have been made to bridge the unnerving gap between human and not quite human; to ascribe some form of emotion to otherwise unfeeling machines. Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son is the latest inventor to throw his gauntlet into the arena.

Robots, says Son, shouldn't be cold, intimidating machines. They should be tender. They should be welcoming and comforting, and above all, they should make people smile. To that end, Son's mobile phone company Softbank announced on Thursday that Pepper - its adorable, legless helper bot - will be going on sale in February 2015 for 198,000 yen (roughly $2100 USD).

To cap off the announcement, Pepper appeared on-stage with Son, where it cooed, hummed, and dramatically touched hands with its creator. 

According to Son - who says his longtime dream was to break into the personal robotics business - Pepper has been programmed to read the emotions of people around it by recognizing facial expressions and vocal tones. Presumably, it's also programmed to react to these tones, and will make an effort to cheer its owner up if it notices they're upset.

"Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile," added Son.

Pepper stands at around 121 centimeters, and weighs about 28 kilograms. Instead of making it look human, Son went for a more vaguely cartoonish look, giving the robot a pair of large, doll-like eyes. It's also got its own tablet PC, which is embedded into its chest. 

In addition to its vocal and facial recognition software, Pepper is also equipped with over a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three in its head, six laser sensors in its body and three bumper sensors in the base. Rounding out all this technology, it's got Wi-Fi and Ethernet capability, two cameras, and four microphones.

Softbank jointly developed Pepper with Aldebaran Robotics, a subsidiary which has offices in France, Japan, China, and the United States.

"I've long 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," explained Softbank founder and CEO Bruno Maisonnier at Thursday's unveiling.

 

If the name Aldeberan sounds familiar, you shouldn't be all that surprised - it's the robotics firm behind the Nao robot, a device used for research and education purposes which has already sold 5000 units. 

Pepper will be capable of drawing information from cloud-based databases, and is outfitted with a number of safety features designed to prevent crashes and falls. Its application architecture is also fully extensible, meaning that new software can be easily installed by anyone who cares to do so. 

As robots become more and more widespread, it's only natural that they'll start to find their way into our day to day lives. Thanks to companies like Softbank, we can be sure they won't terrify us when they do.