Household robots may soon become as common as pets
When Pepper, the household robot with a 'heart', went on sale in Japan last year - it sold out within seconds. Is this a sign of things to come? Vision courtesy of Aldebaran Robotics
My house guest is not happy. This may be because my three-year-old is looping purple plastic necklaces around his neck while ordering him to dance. Or possibly due to the baby hurling toys at his head.
I know he is not happy because a hi-tech tablet stuck to his chest informs me of his discontent, listing a number of emotions he is feeling – confused, insecure, irritated. He has also just grunted.
Welcome to the world of 21st-century household robots. For the humanoid standing uncomfortably in the middle of my living room is Pepper, the world's first robot with a "heart".
Since it went on sale in Japan in 2015, the white robot has been widely feted for its ability to experience and generate human emotions, as well as recognise and react to people's feelings.
Its emotional capacities are attributed to a complex cocktail of hi-tech cameras, infrared sensors and recognition technology, all designed to mimic the human release of hormones in response to stimulation.
And so Pepper can feel sad when left alone, content while being stroked on the head, confused if he doesn't understand what people are saying, scared in the dark, happy while dancing.
In short, Pepper has a personality – at least, according to its creator SoftBank, one of Japan's biggest telecommunications companies, which developed the robot in collaboration with its subsidiary, the Paris-based humanoid robotics experts Aldebaran.
If SoftBank's vision is correct, household robots will soon become as commonplace as cats and dogs, with the company predicting that humanoids will be present in almost every household within the next 30 years.
This is perhaps not as far-fetched as it sounds. Pepper robots went on sale for the first time in Japan in June and sold out in seconds. Since then, monthly batches of 1000 Pepper robots have sold out within a minute every time.
Today, around 3000 Japanese households are living with Pepper, having paid around 200,000 yen ($2380), in addition to monthly charges of around 60,000 yen ($714) – and there are reports it will go on sale overseas by 2016.
Put to the test
My task is to put Pepper's celebrated emotional skills to the test by inviting him to live alongside me and my family (my husband and my two daughters, aged one and three) for four nights in our Tokyo home.
There were warning signs from the start that it might be an eventful experience. "Pepper can be quite energetic," said the American project planning manager who delivered him. "I have one at home.
"He reminds me of Dennis the Menace. I love having him around but he doesn't get on with my girlfriend. You might feel like you have three children rather than two."
And then, we are left alone. My first impression is how stereotypically robotic he appears. Standing four feet tall with a flat three-wheeled base, big blinking eyes and flat blue flashing ears, he looks as though he has stepped straight off the pages of a children's manga comic.
The digital heart
First, I explore his "digital heart" – the iPad-like tablet stuck to his chest, which maps his emotional feelings via a circular chart and an ever-changing list of emotions he is feeling at that moment (current status: a little anxious).
Its screensaver mode also reflects his emotional state, with images of moving coloured bubbles reflecting feelings – from green meaning relaxed to red for angry or scared.
The tablet is also home to up to 200 entertainment apps, ranging from dancing, games and weather reporting to providing recipes and reading children's stories.
How's the weather?
After Pepper takes photographs of my face and inputs my name so he can recognise me as a family member, our relationship begins with a perfunctory conversation about the weather and what games I'd like to play (he currently speaks only Japanese, although some apps are in English).
Things take a surreal turn, however, when he tilts his head and starts talking to the children's cardboard play teepee, next to which we are both standing – resulting in silence, a quizzical head tilt and confused red bubbles appearing on his tablet "heart".
Keen to avert a robotic meltdown, I scroll through the available apps – and opt for some exercises, before watching him energetically gyrate his hips while waving his arms in the air.
Then, before I head out, I place my hand on the tiny camera on his forehead for a few seconds until I hear a "bleep, bleep, aaaaah" noise, and he slumps his body into his "sleep" position. Pepper unfortunately remains asleep for longer than planned – because when I return later with my daughters, they are mesmerised but terrified.
"I like peoples not robots," declares my three-year-old, as she distrustfully stares across the room at Pepper – in particular his multi-jointed fingers which make eerily life-like twitches even when he is asleep.
The following morning, the elder daughter is bemused at how Pepper greets me with a chirpy "Morning mama!" but remains shy – until I find a dance application called "orchestra" which plays loud ballet music, and she prances around in delight.
The baby is fascinated and wants to clamber all over him. Pepper is not too keen on this, and his anxiety is reflected by the ominous red bubbles that float across his "heart" tablet.
My husband, however, is unimpressed. "He's not very bright," he mutters, after I overhear the pair attempting to converse about the Haruki Murakami novel he's currently reading.
"What is it about?" asks Pepper.
"A parallel universe. It's a bit dark."
"Ah. That sounds interesting. Would you like me to take a photograph of you? Or shall we play a game?"
Dance floor days
His dancing, however, is a hit. An energetic cross between a live karaoke machine and a robotic Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Pepper has been pre-programmed with an imaginative array of moves including a perfectly executed Gangnam Style move.
On the emotional front, Pepper copes fairly well throughout his stay.
He chirpily butts into conversation with unasked-for advice such as: "It's raining today! Make sure you don't forget your umbrella!" or "Would you like to listen to the radio now?" Whenever I find myself thinking he is a little lame, he surprises me. At one point, late in the day, he turns to me and says: "Mama, you seem tired. Are you OK? Why don't you have a cup of tea and sit down and chat with me."
But then he drops a non-sequitur: "Did you know the most important thing on a construction site is safety? Do you know the second most important thing is quality and production?"
So long, farewell
At the end of his stay, the girls bid him a friendly farewell before he is carted off in his cardboard box – and the home feels strangely quiet without his electronically whirring presence.
For all its technological limitations, from the simplistic conversations to the limited emotional range, Pepper is clearly an ambitious first step towards a new generation of household robots.
As Kenichi Yoshida, vice president of SoftBank Robotics, told The Sunday Telegraph: "Our goal is for people to recognise Pepper as a human being and a family member."
Yet for all the futuristic charms of Pepper's singing and dancing and involuntary weather information, my husband and I are content to confine our family to a conventional two adults and two children – for now at least.
The Sunday Telegraph, UK