Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has joined hands with hardware manufacturer Foxconn to invest US$118 million in Softbank’s humanoid robot, Pepper.
The new venture, called Softbank Robotics Holdings, will give Alibaba and Foxconn each a 20% stake in the venture. Softbank will retain a majority ownership at 60%.
The partnership “will build a structure to bring Pepper and other robotics businesses to global markets, and cooperate with the aim of spreading and developing the robotics industry on a worldwide scale,” Alibaba said.
Pepper will be available to consumers on June 20 in Japan, Softbank told reporters today, where it will retail for 198,000 yen ($1,600).
Pepper has been in development since 2012, when Softbank paid an estimated $100 million for a majority stake in French robotics firm Alderbaran. In June of last year, Softbank publicly unveiled Pepper, telling media it was could serve as an emotionally-aware companion for the elderly, as well as a customer service assistant for retail outlets. Bloomberg says that the robot will be sold at-cost to consumers, and will make money by selling apps.
Foxconn is already Pepper’s manufacturer, but Alibaba’s investment in the robot comes as a surprise. The company’s core e-commerce business makes it a likely distributor for Pepper in China, and the robot could link with Aliyun, Alibaba’s cloud computing unit.
It’s the early days for humanoid robots, and it’s not yet clear if Pepper is a trailblazing product with mass appeal, or a vanity project for Softbank. The robot’s irresistible smile might warm the hearts of audiences and investors. But with a hefty price tag, it could leave potential buyers cold.