There's an entire robotics marketplace at Las Vegas's annual tech trade show CES, but few companies are actually selling human-like robots that perform tasks in your home. 

Enter French robotics company Aldebaran and it's newest robot, Pepper. Billed as "the first humanoid robot designed to live with humans," Pepper was originally created for Japanese mobile phone company SoftBank Mobile as a device to greet and welcome shoppers in stores. (Aldebaran, founded in 2005, was acquired by SoftBank for an undisclosed sum last year.) 

After introducing 300 Peppers in stores throughout Japan last year, demand for a consumer version of Pepper led Aldebaran to design a personal robot that lives in people's homes and acts as a social companion. So far, the company has sold roughly 7,000 Peppers to consumers in Japan. Each robot costs roughly $2,000 and comes with a monthly subscription that covers maintenance and software updates. Businesses in Europe like French supermarket/department store Carrefour also use Pepper to greet and entertain customers, and Italian cruise operator Costa Cruises has purchased 30 Peppers to entertain guests on cruises. Aldebaran is using CES as a platform to introduce Pepper to the U.S. market and expects to begin selling units to consumers in the U.S. and Europe in the coming months.

So what does Pepper actually do? The robot can already communicate with humans through voice and touch and move around autonomously, but perhaps most impressive is Pepper's ability to recognize human facial expressions and react accordingly. For example, Pepper can tell when humans are happy, sad, or angry just by looking at their faces, and can do things like play your favorite song to help cheer you up. It can also move its limbs and dance like humans, play interactive and educational games through the tablet mounted on its chest, tell stories, and perform basic surveillance by taking pictures in your home after detecting motion.  Still, it's what Pepper can't do--yet--that Aldebaran chief of innovation Rodolphe Gelin is most excited about.

"The things that will make the real difference between robots and other digital devices is locomotion and manipulation," he says, referring to tasks like exploring an individual's apartment to find lost items. "Those will be the basic functions that will make everything else possible." Aldebaran's other main goal is to fine-tune Pepper's ability to understand a broader set of human emotions.

While Pepper is the first robot of its kind to sell to consumers, according to Gelin, it is not Aldebaran's first robot. In 2007, the company created NAO (pronounced "now"), a robot about half the size of Pepper created for researchers in labs that wanted to develop robotic software but didn't have robots to pair it with. The company has sold 9,000 units, the price for which recently fell from $16,000 to $8,000.

Like Pepper, NAO's intended purpose--robotic research--led to other functions. NAO has been used as a mediation device in teaching autistic children, who enjoy interacting with the robot more than with humans in some cases, and also acts as a concierge in retirement houses in Belgium, France, and Holland, providing simple information like what's for dinner and what movies are being played.

Though Aldebaran is not yet profitable, Gelin says he is bullish on more widespread adoption of so-called humanoid robots, particularly after more improvements in artificial intelligence.

"For me, the future of the robot is that it could propose certain services and prevent problems before they happen," Gelin says.

Published on: Jan 6, 2016