If SoftBank Robotics has its way, Pepper the humanoid robot will not only soon offer cooking advice when you shop for olive oil at your local grocery store, it will also read your facial expressions to let the retailer know whether you enjoyed your shopping experience. Pepper, an autonomous robot equipped with sensors, radar, lidar, microphones, 2-D and 3-D cameras, facial recognition software, and the same language processing software as Apple's Siri, is the Japanese telecom's ambitious attempt to transform in-store retail into a robotics-powered experience. "Pepper is the next computing platform after mobile," says Steve Carlin, general manager and vice president of SoftBank Robotics America.

Last week, SoftBank announced the 4-foot-tall robot will be sold to U.S. retailers by the end of the year. Already, about 10,000 Peppers--which sell for $18,000 to $20,000 for the robot, insurance, and monthly maintenance and updates over three years--are hard at "work" in Asia and Europe. Pepper is currently giving car specs in Nissan showrooms, talking coffee at Nescafé stores, and chatting about smartphones in SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan. The robot even interacts with customers at several banks in Taiwan and helps shoppers select wine at Carrefour grocery stores in France. SoftBank is currently building out its distribution and support network in the U.S. to prepare for a soft launch before the end of 2016 (a claim it's hyped several times over the past year).

Packed with 20 motors that allow it to move freely and gesticulate with its hands, fingers, head, and body in life-like movement, Pepper is the brainchild of Aldebaran, a French robotics company acquired by SoftBank in 2012 (with additional investment from Alibaba and Foxconn). The robot connects to the internet and runs on a basic operating system named Naoqi, which SoftBank has opened up to software programmers in hopes that, like Apple's App Store, a Pepper app universe will emerge, expanding the robot's abilities and uses. For an extra cost, Pepper customers will be able to power their robot with additional technology, including Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence engine, and Azure, Microsoft's cloud computing platform.

While SoftBank hopes to eventually pitch the humanoid to the hospitality and health care industries, its first play is in retail. The company says Pepper offers countless benefits for retailers: an empathetic robot to engage with customers, a consumer behavior tracker with a friendly and interactive form, and even a new-age advertising platform. Carlin says retailers can also connect Pepper to a store's inventory database and a customer relationship management system.

During a demo with Pepper at the W Hotel in Union Square in New York City, Pepper strutted its stuff: "Welcome to the Pepper Store, " said Pepper. "To help me recognize you, please show me your card."

After Chris Norris, SoftBank Robotics America's director of marketing and public relations, put a mock customer rewards card in front of Pepper's face, the robot welcomed him:

"Glad to see you, Chris. Here is your personalized special offer; it's awesome! Get them while they're hot. Oh, I love this one," said Pepper.

Pepper's responses were generic, but Carlin explained how retailers will program Pepper to tell customers about specific deals and products in the company's inventory. During the demo, Pepper also explained it could provide a price check, talk specs, and let customers buy a product online through the tablet attached to its chest. At the end, Pepper gave a fist-bump and also showed how it can dance and do a mean air guitar.

SoftBank's Carlin says Pepper can do things for customers that human employees simply can't. Powered by A.I. and cloud computing, Pepper can be more helpful than humans in retail stores with huge inventory. "If you have a car lot with fluctuating inventory, it's hard to expect your employees to know everything on the lot at any moment, but Pepper would be able to do that," says Carlin. "It can tell a customer there are three Lexuses in white and blue on the lot right now and explain the different specifications."

SoftBank even says Pepper has the potential to bring paid search to life in the offline world--adding a new revenue stream for retailers. For example, says Carlin, when a customer asks Pepper where the soap aisle is, it can plug that Seventh Generation is environmentally friendly, or how Tide can make your dirty whites glow bright. "Pepper can act as a brand ambassador. Instead of me checking my phone in-aisle to find out the olive oil I'm holding in my hand came from a 1,000-year-old tree, Pepper can tell me how to use the olive oil while I'm cooking tonight," says Carlin.

With all of this computing power, could Pepper replace a human salesperson? Carlin says it isn't ready to hold a full-time position. "I love the amount of credit the world gives robots, but the reality is that this particular technology will alleviate redundancies, like telling customers where the bathroom is and other tasks, but it cannot replace people," says Carlin.

SoftBank Robotics also boasts that Pepper's "emotion engine" can detect emotions and respond appropriately. When we chatted, Pepper sounded like it was stiffly reading a script. However, it did manage to detect a smile on my face. When I wasn't smiling, Pepper joked that I must not have thought it was cute.

Eventually, SoftBank sees Pepper evolving from a corporate product to a consumer one. Think if Siri were a mobile, more capable household assistant. "Eventually, we see Pepper as the chief information officer of your home," says Carlin. "That's been the vision since day one, and Pepper is already in homes in Japan."

Published on: Oct 19, 2016