Foxconn, Alibaba join SoftBank in global robotics push

SoftBank's Pepper robot gets 'emotions' with consumer launch as sales outside Japan are planned

Pepper robot in Japan

Japanese wireless carrier SoftBank's communications robot Pepper hands out tissues at an event in Maihama, Japan, on Thursday for its consumer launch.

Credit: Tim Hornyak/IDG News Service
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Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank is teaming up with Apple manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group in a global push to manufacture and sell robots for the home and workplace.

Foxconn and Alibaba are each investing ¥14.5 billion (US$118 million) in SoftBank Robotics Holdings (SRH), for a stake of about 20 percent each of the company, with SoftBank holding the remaining 60 percent.

SRH is a holding company for SoftBank's robotics business, which will begin sales of the carrier's Pepper communications robot for Japanese consumers on Saturday. It plans to first sell 1,000 units, priced at ¥198,000 (US$1,600) with a monthly cloud connection fee of ¥14,800 (US$120)and monthly insurance of ¥9,800 (US$80). The hardware price is low for a robot as sophisticated as Pepper.

The venture is aimed at manufacturing Pepper and distributing it overseas, though sales outside Japan would not begin until next year. While they are focused on household robots, the trio of companies will shift to develop robots for businesses beginning in the fall of this year.

"Pepper will be the first step," SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said at an event where he was joined by Foxconn CEO Terry Gou and Alibaba founder Jack Ma. "We started in Japan but we will make this into a global business."

Robotics will make up a major part of SoftBank's business in a few decades, Son said, as Gou and Ma echoed his long-term vision for robots playing an increasingly indispensable role in society.

"Whether you like it or not, robots will be as popular as cars and will play a very important role in the next 30 years," Ma said.

Son, however, said SoftBank doesn't expect to make a profit in the first four years by selling Pepper, which costs significantly more to make than its sale price. The company is hoping the robot will grow emotionally with its owners and become a genuine family member, so that users won't get bored of it.

The partnership follows an announcement on Wednesday by U.S. warehouse robot maker Fetch Robotics that it had received a $20 million investment from SoftBank to help it meet greater demand from fulfillment centers.

Son showed off the latest "emotion engine" for Pepper, a software system that can help it recognize emotions in humans and develop its own artificial feelings. When Pepper is ignored by its owners, for instance, it can mimic a state of being withdrawn and sad. When it's praised and showered with affection, it becomes happy.

The latest version of the robot has a CPU that's four times faster than the one unveiled last year. Through its cloud connection, Pepper will learn from other robots, but it will not be able to share private information or data related to its owners, according to SoftBank.

"Pepper will become smarter every day by itself," Son said. "Hundreds of thousands, million of Peppers in the future, will teach each other and learn from each other simultaneously."

In a demo, a map of concentric circles representing Pepper's emotions was displayed on its chest tablet. The innermost circle represents basic feelings such as like or hate while the outer circles represent more complex emotions such as frustration and impatience. As the machine mimics emotional states, different parts of the map light up in red or green.

Based on research by Cocoro SB, a cloud AI firm, Pepper's emotion engine runs on a simulation of the action of hormones and neurotransmitters in the human brain, with digital versions of dopamine, cortisol and six other chemical messengers changing in response to stimuli processed by its cameras, touch sensors and other input devices.

But don't fret about the family bot flying into a rage and destroying furniture. It will never get sulky or refuse to communicate, but how it responds will change according to its "mood." Content providers such as Japanese advertising giant Dentsu worked with SoftBank to script responses for the robot as part of its synthetic personality.

"He's like Dennis the Menace without the pranks," said SoftBank Robotics engineer Sean McKelvey, referring to the U.S. comic strip character of that name, a five-year-old boy whoh gets up to mischief. McKelvey has spent so much time with Pepper that he can't resist using pronouns when describing the machine; SoftBank officially views Pepper as male. "He's spunky and says things off the cuff."

While Pepper can't do the dishes or laundry, SoftBank said it will have about 200 apps to make it somewhat useful. Pepper's Diary, for instance, involves the bot taking snapshots of family events and writing journal entries. Son said that could serve as a repository of family memories for decades, like an intelligent photo album.

Pepper does have rudimentary hand function, however, and can grasp light objects. In another demo, the robot was handing out packets of tissues, grabbing them from containers attached to its waist and proffering them to people nearby.

That's actually something done by countless human workers in Japan. Karaoke parlors and other establishments trying to grab commuters' attention print ads on tissue packets and pay people to hand them out at subway stations.

In a humorous twist, Cocoro SB will hire out Pepper to such companies in Tokyo starting in July, adding to the robot's resume, which includes hawking smartphones and coffee machines.

Pepper's hourly rate for giving out tissues will be ¥1,500 (US$12), nearly double the minimum wage for humans in the capital.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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