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The World’s First Emotional Robot

A Japanese robot that responds to human emotions

Author Nicholas Derenzo Illustration Jameson Simpson

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Many Americans have begun to fear that their jobs might one day be taken over by robots. Factory line workers? Definitely. Grocery store cashiers? Sure. Therapists? Until recently, they didn’t have as much to worry about. Enter Pepper, the world’s first “emotional” robot and the first full-scale humanoid robot available to consumers. The nearly 4-foot-tall creation—which zips around on three multidirectional wheels—was designed by Paris-based robotics firm Aldebaran and was originally commissioned by one of Japan’s largest cell phone companies, SoftBank Mobile, to work as customer service reps in its stores. The robot has what might be termed E.I., or “emotional intelligence.” It was designed not for a specific utilitarian purpose (like, say, a vacuuming Roomba) but instead to offer something that was, until now, distinctly human: emotional connection. Pepper reads and responds to human emotions, even evolving its own “personality” through continued interactions. If early sales are any indication (1,000 robots, priced at around $1,600 each, sold out in a minute), you might be making the acquaintance of a Pepper or two in the near future. Here, a look inside the mind of your next best friend.

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1. Pepper is powered by what its creators call an “emotion engine.” The robot’s head contains four microphones, multiple cameras and a touch sensor in order to collect pertinent data, such as facial expressions (smiles, frowns, surprised faces), gestures, body language, speech and tone of voice. This information is then quantified into a numerical score that dictates how the robot responds.

2. Based on these emotional stimuli, the robot is programmed to react appropriately. If, for example, it detects a frown or hears negative words (like “hate”), it might try to cheer you up by dancing or telling a joke in one of the four languages in which it’s currently fluent (English, French, Spanish and Japanese). There’s also a tablet on its chest to promote further interaction.

3. Pepper boasts the unique ability to learn over time, meaning that, much like a real friend, it’ll get to know your likes and dislikes over the course of your evolving relationship. It might, for example, learn your favorite song so it can play it when you’re feeling blue. Or, if it notices that you always laugh when it dances, it might learn some new moves to keep you smiling. You might say it’s all fun and games—or the Peppers might just be buttering us up before the inevitable global robot takeover.

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