Robots in Japan now have emotions

Emotional robot.
Emotional robot.
Image: Aldebaran/Jake Curtis
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Amid a growing debate over humanity’s place in the world alongside artificial intelligence, a Japanese telecom company has released a robot that it says has emotions. But rather than run in fear from it, we’ve welcomed it into our homes: Pepper, the “emotional robot,” sold out within a minute of going on sale.

Created by Aldebaran Robotics and Japanese mobile giant SoftBank, Pepper went on sale to the general public in Japan June 20. It is “the first humanoid robot designed to live with humans,” Aldebaran says on its website.

Pepper costs about $1,600. And like all good mobile products, there’s a $120 per month data fee, as well as an $80 per month damage insurance fee. (Feelings don’t come cheap.)

According to a news release, Pepper can pick up on human emotions and create his own using a “endocrine-type multi-layer neural network.” No word on whether it’s a learning computer. Pepper’s touch sensors and cameras are said to influence its mood, which is displayed on the tablet-sized screen on its chest. Pepper will audibly sigh when unhappy, and can go around your house recording your family’s daily activity, if you’re in the market for an emotionally-charged security camera.

Aldebaran says Pepper can feel “joy, surprise, anger, doubt and sadness,” but it doesn’t offer how strongly it can feel these emotions. What happens when Pepper is having a bad day? Will it, like many humans, become irascible and uncooperative? Will it ask for some time alone? What happens if it figures out that its purpose in life is just to engage in small talk?

Thankfully, Pepper is only about four feet tall, with roller balls instead of legs, so even if it snaps and turns on its owners, you’ll be safe if you can make it upstairs. There’s also the issue of whether this robot has what would truly be considered emotions, or is just mimicking what humans would likely do in a given set of situations. That’s worked out well for robots in science fiction recently, but in reality, we’re probably quite a few decades away from artificial intelligence that could generate real emotions.

Aldebaran wasn’t immediately available for comment on when Pepper will be available outside of Japan, but additional sales are scheduled for July after the initial 1,000 units sold out. SoftBank currently uses the robots in its stores as greeters, and it plans to offer Pepper to other stores in the future. Hopefully “boredom” is not an emotion Pepper can feel.