Domo Arigato, Pepper Roboto


Autumn is officially here, but I’m still catching up to June. June, in turn, allows us to catch up to a story we looked at earlier, namely the development of a robot called Pepper. This story was destined for the west Pacific, and now is the time for an update.

Although Pepper’s original developer was a French company, the famously technophilic Japan was host to the robot’s market launch in June. We can expect that, sooner or later, these, or similar, robots, will arrive on Saipan.

As for Pepper’s June product launch, it was a wild success: 1,000 robots were sold within a one-minute time span. The price was reported at about $1,600 for the robot plus about $200 a month for data and maintenance.

Pepper stands about four feet tall and rolls on wheels, but if you can overlook the wheels-instead-of-legs thing, Pepper has a roughly human structure in sort of a space-alien sort of way.

Pepper is a companion robot, which was programmed to recognize, and respond to, human emotions such as facial expressions. It speaks several languages, it hears, and it sees. So it was designed for repartee, and not designed to be an appliance-of-burden that will do your laundry for you.

Still, mere engagement can have its own practicality. So I’m sure that Pepper, or its conceptual cousins, will become a common sight in the tourism industry, making the rounds of hotel lobbies and restaurants to draw the attention of customers. One thing I’ve had drilled into my head in the customer service realm is that guests should be acknowledged as soon as they enter the premises. Many a tourism manager must be interested in the notion of allowing a couple of Peppers handling that duty 24/7, doing a tag-team routine so one can recharge and have a cigarette while the other presses the flesh. Er, presses the plastic.

For any business I’ve ever worked with, a two grand acquisition cost for hardware is peanuts. On the other hand, a $200 a month ongoing cost is not peanuts, but we’ll just have to see how the competitive dynamics of the industry work themselves out.

Meanwhile, Pepper is being groomed for its stateside debut. Toward that end, according to a Sept. 16 report in the MIT Technology Review, Pepper is being programmed to have an element of sarcasm in its personality in order to better mesh with American culture.

This leads me to wonder if soon owners of Pepper will be able to select its personality from a menu of choices. Pepper is connected to the Net, and there are already hundreds of “apps” available for it.

Will humanoid robots be the next big thing, shaking up life, commerce, and society as much as personal computing did? Or is their true potential sufficiently distant that they’ll remain expensive novelties in the near future?

I don’t know, but maybe they’re on the cusp of ubiquity, and, like personal computers, they’ll find their way into offices and businesses before they wind up in living rooms and kitchens.

And, assuming that they are the next big thing, my bet is that whatever is popular in, say, five years, will be something that most of us can’t even envision today. For all we know, people will be having love affairs with their toasters. That specter is no more absurd than being told, back in the day, that people would wind up staring at their telephones for hours per day.

Robots, as living room concepts if not household products, have captured the public fancy for as long as I can remember. I remember magazines in the ’70s that had photos of robots, and many of them had that cool, futuristic-retro flavor of the ’50s. I don’t think they did anything but flash a few lights here and there, if that. But, hey, the future was going to arrive any minute now. Or year. Or decade. Or, ahem, century.

Even non-humanoid, cinematic robots could make an impression on you. For example, in 1972, a sci-fi movie called Silent Running came out. Yeah, that was a long time ago, but that’s the point, because I still remember the sad scene in which one of the robots met with a bad fate. And it wasn’t even a humanoid robot. It looked like a cross between a pug-nosed air-conditioner and a Ford electronic ignition module. Pretty, it wasn’t. Still, we felt sorry for the thing.

OK, so much for the past, or the future as envisioned by the past, which leads us back to the future envisioned at the present, and, well, that’s enough for now.

Anyway: robots. They’re already being sold in Japan, so Saipan will surely be in play, too.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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