Mike Blake / Reuters

Pepper, an emotional Robot, greets conference attendees during the Wall Street Journal Digital Live conference at the Montage hotel in Laguna Beach, California October 20, 2015.

April 28, 2017

Humanoid Robot ‘Pepper’ Makes North American Debut at Cornell

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Three humanoid robots and more than 100 Cornell alumni joined Rodolphe Gelin, the chief scientific officer of SoftBank Robotics, for a keynote speech on the future of robotics as part of a two-day Entrepreneurship at Cornell celebration.

The conference also features the North American debut for “Pepper,” the name of three human-shaped robots developed by SoftBank Robotics since 2014. The three versions of Pepper are the first humanoid robots capable of recognizing human emotions and adapting behaviors accordingly.

“It is the first time that Pepper is here in a North America university campus,” Soumitra Dutta, dean of the SC Johnson College of Business, said. “It is a great fit for Cornell, known for engineering and business.”

With 20 years of research experience in robotics, Gelin is passionate about using robots to assist people and help with rehabilitation. He also directed the development of Romeo, a larger robot and a research prototype designed to assist the elderly.

“All these service robots are designed to interact with humans,” Gelin said. “It is very different from those robots that interact with both humans and things.”

Recognizing that value does not only come from robots, but the application and services, Gelin said he focused on developing the research and institutional markets instead of the bigger and more profitable consumer market.

After joining SoftBank, Pepper was used in more than 140 mobile stores in Japan as a new way of welcoming, informing and entertaining customers. Expanding from business-to-business to business-to-consumer markets, it has also become the first humanoid robot to be adopted in Japanese homes.

“With 20,000 robots sold in more than 70 countries, we are a world leader on the market of humanoid robotics,” Gelin said.

Gelin said humans also need to be very careful with the position of Pepper in different countries. In Japan, for example, there is a need for robots to replace portions of the labor force, while in France, robots need to have more functions than merely replacing humans.

Through a series of videos, Gelin introduced the audience to the robot Nao, a smaller humanoid robot, and its many applications, including autism clinical treatment, educational assistance, disability aid, physical coaching, environment exploration, communication and cognitive games.

Unique to humanoid robots, emotional detection in the voice and emotional interaction with humans could create important connections using empathy.

“When you are smiling, the robot is excited and it shows only by its behaviors,” Gelin said. “By learning, the robot not only understands what you say, but also how you say it.”

Despite these groundbreaking progress in robotics, there are still many barriers that need to be overcome, Gelin said.

“The robots are much less strong than what you see in movies, so we have plenty of work to do together,” Gelin said of the difficulties of designing truly autonomous robots.

“Having a very fluent conversation with robots is very difficult,” he added. “The robot is also very noisy when it moves, so it is hard for speech recognition.”

Besides these challenges, Gelin pointed out a dilemma between having a slow-speaking robot and a potential privacy violation. A limited central processing unit prevents signal processing in real-time but sending the signal to a remote server requires personal information being shared with the rest of the world, creating a balancing act.

“We have to teach robots everything that is intuitive for us,” he said. Referring to the scenarios of elderly people falling down, Gelin said, “It requires a lot of training, sometimes things that don’t happen quite often in real life.”

“It is only the beginning of the companion robots, and there are many things that the robot can do with us,” Gelin said.