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Robot named Pepper amuses Shoppers in San Francisco, but how Practical is it?

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FILE - Visitors crowd around Pepper, a companion robot, during the World Robot Conference in Beijing. China, Oct. 21, 2016. VOA

While merrily chirping, dancing and posing for selfies, a robot named Pepper looks like another expensive toy at a San Francisco mall. But don’t dismiss it as mere child’s play.

Pepper embodies the ambitions of SoftBank Robotics, an Asian joint venture formed by a trio of major technology companies that’s aiming to put its personable robots in businesses and homes across the U.S. over the next few years.

If the technology advances as Softbank Robotics hopes, Pepper could become a playmate, companion and concierge. It could eventually respond to voice commands to retrieve vital information, make reservations and control home appliances that are connected to the internet.

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That’s the theory, anyway. For now, Pepper is more amusing than practical, Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder said.

For instance, Pepper has been directing shoppers to stores in the mall through text messages because it still isn’t advanced enough to say them out loud. And Pepper still has trouble understanding what people are asking, requiring shoppers to type in their requests for mall directions on a tablet mounted on the robot’s chest.

SoftBank is trying to improve Pepper’s capabilities by focusing first on the business market — retailers, hotels, auto dealerships and even hospitals. SoftBank hopes to use those environments to learn more about what consumers like and don’t like about Pepper and, from that, teach it more tasks, said Steve Carlin, the venture’s vice president for marketing and business development in North America.

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Mall encounters

The recently launched test runs in Westfield Corp.’s malls in San Francisco and Santa Clara, California, mark the first time that Pepper has made an extended appearance in the U.S. The robots began appearing just before Thanksgiving and will stick around through mid-February.

Carlin said about 300 to 500 people per day engaged with Pepper during its first month in the San Francisco mall. During a recent visit, kids flocked around the 4-foot-tall humanoid as it spoke in a cherubic voice that could belong to either a boy or girl.

Westfield views Pepper as a way to make shopping in the mall more entertaining and enjoyable at a time when people are increasingly buying merchandise online. Three Peppers are sprinkled in heavily trafficked areas around Westfield’s San Francisco mall and the two more are in the Santa Clara center. If all goes well, Westfield also plans to bring Pepper to its New York mall at the World Trade Center and the Garden State mall in Paramus, New Jersey.

“We put her in our [human resources] system and have given her a name tag,” said Shawn Pauli, senior vice president for Westfield.

Japan, Europe

Pepper got its start two years ago in Japan before expanding into Europe. In those two markets, more than 10,000 Peppers are already operating in grocery stores, coffee shops, banks, cruise lines, railway stations and homes. Most of the robots are in businesses. SoftBank hasn’t disclosed how many have been sold to consumers.

Carlin acknowledged the U.S. would be a tougher market to crack than Japan, where he said consumers tend to embrace new technology more quickly.

In addition, Pepper’s price is likely to be out of reach for most consumers. The robot currently sells for about $2,000; a three-year subscription covering software upgrades, insurance and technology support increases the total to $18,000 to $20,000.

Softbank Robotics is controlled by Japan’s Softbank Group, a technology conglomerate that recently pledged to invest $50 billion in U.S. startups. A remaining 40 percent stake is equally owned by China’s Alibaba Group, Asia’s e-commerce leader, and by Taiwan’s Foxconn, which assembles Apple’s iPhone and is considering a U.S. expansion.

‘LoweBot’ has an edge

Despite its pedigree, Pepper already lags behind a cruder-looking robot that home improvement retailer Lowe’s has been testing as a way to help shoppers find merchandise in its sprawling stores, Gownder said.

The “LoweBot,” a box-like machine on wheels, began patrolling a San Jose, California, store last month and will begin showing up in 10 other stores in the San Francisco Bay area in early 2017. If all goes well, it could become a fixture in all Lowe’s stores.

Gownder gives LoweBot the early edge over Pepper because Lowe’s machine has a detailed database of the store’s inventory, enabling it to quickly determine whether something is in stock and then guide shoppers to the aisle where the requested item is located.

“While Pepper offers a lively, appealing interface, it remains to be seen whether it will fill the role that retailers want,” Gownder said. “Does it have enough intelligence to answer customers’ questions effectively?”

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Greater ambitions

While LoweBot is a one-trick pony, focused on retail tasks, SoftBank’s ambitions with Pepper are greater. Pepper has enough artificial intelligence to recognize smiles and frowns, helping the robot understand the mood of a person interacting with it. But it also tends to lock its electronic eyes on someone standing in front of it and continue to follow people as they look away while ignoring the next visitor.

A recent visitor to the San Francisco mall, Sharif Ezzat, noticed some of Pepper’s shortcomings and concluded that the robot is still a long way from having mass appeal.

“I can’t see it right now, but I can see where it’s going,” Ezzat said of Pepper’s potential.

Chaz MacSwan, a puppeteer in San Francisco, was more impressed.

“Look at the joy it’s bringing to people, especially the kids,” MacSwan said. “I’d love to have one, especially if it could clean the carpets.” (VOA)

 

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San Francisco Bans Use of Face Recognition Software by Police

The ban applies to San Francisco police and other municipal departments. It does not affect use of the technology by the federal government at airports and ports, nor does it limit personal or business use

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This photo taken Tuesday, May 7, 2019, shows a security camera in the Financial District of San Francisco. VOA

San Francisco supervisors voted Tuesday to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other city departments, becoming the first U.S. city to outlaw a rapidly developing technology that has alarmed privacy and civil liberties advocates.

The ban is part of broader legislation that requires city departments to establish use policies and obtain board approval for surveillance technology they want to purchase or are using at present. Several other local governments require departments to disclose and seek approval for surveillance technology.

“This is really about saying: ‘We can have security without being a security state. We can have good policing without being a police state.’ And part of that is building trust with the community based on good community information, not on Big Brother technology,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who championed the legislation.

The ban applies to San Francisco police and other municipal departments. It does not affect use of the technology by the federal government at airports and ports, nor does it limit personal or business use.

face recognition software
The ban is part of broader legislation that requires city departments to establish use policies and obtain board approval for surveillance technology they want to purchase or are using at present. Wikimedia Commons

The San Francisco board did not spend time Tuesday debating the outright ban on facial recognition technology, focusing instead on the possible burdens placed on police, the transit system and other city agencies that need to maintain public safety. “I worry about politicizing these decisions,” said Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a former prosecutor who was the sole no vote.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., issued a statement chiding San Francisco for considering the facial recognition ban. It said advanced technology makes it cheaper and faster for police to find suspects and identify missing people.

Critics were silly to compare surveillance usage in the United States with China, given that one country has strong constitutional protections and the other does not, said Daniel Castro, the foundation’s vice president.

“In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China — a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology,” he said.

It’s unclear how many San Francisco departments are using surveillance and for what purposes, said Peskin. There are valid reasons for license-plate readers, body cameras, and security cameras, he said, but the public should know how the tools are being used or if they are being abused.

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Several other local governments require departments to disclose and seek approval for surveillance technology. Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco’s police department stopped testing face ID technology in 2017. A representative at Tuesday’s board meeting said the department would need two to four additional employees to comply with the legislation. Privacy advocates have squared off with public safety proponents at several heated hearings in San Francisco, a city teeming with tech innovation and the home of Twitter, Airbnb and Uber.

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Those who support the ban say the technology is flawed and a serious threat to civil liberties, especially in a city that cherishes public protest and privacy. They worry people will one day not be able to go to a mall, the park or a school without being identified and tracked.

But critics say police need all the help they can get, especially in a city with high-profile events and high rates of property crime. That people expect privacy in public space is unreasonable given the proliferation of cellphones and surveillance cameras, said Meredith Serra, a member of a resident public safety group Stop Crime SF. “To me, the ordinance seems to be a costly additional layer of bureaucracy that really does nothing to improve the safety of our citizens,” she said at a hearing. (VOA)