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

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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German Band Works in Concert With “Robotic” Instruments to Create Music Mix

"real music won't die"

Cico Beck and Nico Siereg were drummers in an indie rock band prior to this experimental band called Joasihno. The band is from Munich, Germany.
Cico Beck and Nico Siereg were drummers in an indie rock band prior to this experimental band called Joasihno. The band is from Munich, Germany. VOA

German band Joasihno strikes a chord in a unique way as it takes its show on the road.

Currently touring in Canada, the two-man band works in concert with a “robotic” element that can play several instruments at the same time.

“Actually we call it psychedelic robot orchestra,” said Cico Beck, one of the creators of the band. “It’s a combination of acoustic instruments but also very trashy robot instruments,” he added.

Once hooked up to wires and set up, instruments that include a xylophone, drum and cymbal play on their own. Another contraption, a horizontal, self-revolving wooden stick, stands atop a microphone stand. The stick contains long strings tied on each end with a wooden ping pong-sized-ball attached. As the stick rotates, the balls hit a block on the floor, creating a hollow knocking sound.

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Cico Beck and Nico Siereg were drummers in an indie rock band prior to this experimental band called Joasihno, a robot band.
Cico Beck and Nico Siereg were drummers in an indie rock band prior to this experimental band called Joasihno, a robot band. VOA

Beck said a computer is at the heart of the self-playing instruments.

“Most of this stuff is controlled by the computer. The computer can translate voltage signals, so the robots are controlled by the voltage, that is controlled by the computer,” Beck said.

Playing in an experimental band with a robot orchestra is not the same as playing in a traditional one, said Nico Siereg, the other Joasihno member.

“It’s a little bit different because you also have in mind that there are machines playing with you, so there’s no reaction from them.”

Siereg said in some ways, once the robots are programmed, he is free to focus on what he is playing and even improvise. The musician said he can envision future scenarios in which technology plays a greater role in creating different types of music; but, he voiced hope that “real music won’t die.”

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Cico Beck and Nico Siereg were drummers in an indie rock band prior to this experimental band called Joasihno. They've been playing experimental music in Joasihno for two years.
Cico Beck and Nico Siereg were drummers in an indie rock band prior to this experimental band called Joasihno. They’ve been playing experimental music in Joasihno for two years. VOA

Even if the robots are not taking over the music world, Beck said it is undeniable that in the 21st century, music and technology are intertwined.

“Technology is like a very important tool that even, very often, it’s also a very important part of inspiration,” he added.

Joasihno performed several shows at the now-concluded music festival and tech conference known as South by Southwest, held in Austin, Texas. The experimental band is hoping its high-tech use of instrumentals will be music to one’s ears. VOA