Robots are getting smarter by the day.
The French robotics company Aldebaran brought Pepper--its "thinking robot"--onstage at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, Sunday to show off some of its upcoming features and paint a picture of what life with robots will look like in the near future.
Designed as a "humanoid robot" that can live with humans, Pepper is built with artificial intelligence technology from IBM's cognitive computing engine "Watson." More than 7,000 Peppers have been sold for roughly $2,000 each to consumers in Japan who use it for things like social companionship--Pepper can understand human voices and respond to questions. Aldebaran plans to begin selling the robot in the U.S. this year, though it hasn't settled on a price yet.
Here are four of the impressive skills that Pepper will be able to demonstrate in the near future when it co-exists with humans in the U.S.
1. Analyze human behavior over time.
One of the reasons Aldebaran says Pepper can "think" is related to the robot's ability to predict what humans will want before they ask for it. An example Aldebaran's chief of innovation Rodolphe Gelin shared during the panel involves a situation where an elderly person has been alone for multiple days. "The robot could say, 'For two days you haven't talked to anyone except me. Do you want me to call your son or your grandchildren?'" Gelin said. Pepper can also learn about human preferences to recommend things based on previous experiences. "With continual use, it will get better and better," said John Anderson, an IBM software developer.
2. Speak with expressive gestures.
Creating a seamless relationship with humans requires a robot that talks like humans and moves like humans, according to Gelin. "Gestures are very, very important," he said. "We say that 80 percent of the meaning of an exchange comes from the gesture, not the speech." For this reason, Pepper is programmed to use what Gelin calls "social movements" and respond differently depending on whether a person is happy or sad. It also knows how to address humans like a normal person would, so it won't sneak up on you from behind and tap you on the shoulder, Gelin said.
3. Share experiences with its telepresence.
For an elderly person who can't attend an event like a wedding, Pepper can be used as a "telepresence." An iPad mounted to its chest makes Facetiming with the person fairly simple. Though its movement is somewhat limited by the fact that it operates on wheels, Aldebaran says it is working on a new robot called "Romeo" that will have legs, according to Gelin. "That's a use case we definitely believe in," he said.
4. Act as your personal chief technology officer.
One of the most useful aspects of having Pepper will likely involve connecting the robot to other devices. For example, if a person wears a fitness tracker and hasn't reached his or her daily 10,000 step count, Pepper could suggest a route that would help the person reach their target. "Pepper could be the hub as a new interface for all of those devices in your home," said Steve Carlin, VP of marketing at development at SoftBank, which acquired Aldebaran last year for an undisclosed sum.
Despite all of Pepper's capabilities, Aldebaran hasn't quite invented Rosie from The Jetsons just yet. Simple tasks like getting a drink from the fridge are still too complicated as of now, and Pepper can only carry items weighing roughly 0.5 pounds. "We developed navigation to go into the kitchen," Gelin said. "Now, the next step is to grasp."