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We must not mourn the passing of Pepper the robot

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A few years ago, we had the Pepper robot to visit as a short-term guest. Once you got past the gleam of his playful but powerful eyes, the $ 1,800, “emotion-reading” robot was decent fun: riding somewhere between Duplo and Netflix in its ability to capture two under-sixs for an afternoon.

But Pepper, once you look past it the novelty of his act, he was basically a huckster: an overly adaptable seller of his limited merchandise. And he wasn’t just an old salesman. The robot, like the precious creation of SoftBank and embodied the great vision of the company’s futurist founder, Masayoshi Son, he was the foreigner of the foreigner.

On his mechanized shoulders lay the exciting promise of the mass market, artificially intelligent humanoids at home and, more broadly, of Son who had the reason for consumer-facing home robots as well as broadband, smart phones. and chips that supported SoftBank’s fortunes. Which is why the looks of this little automaton, and the spin that now surrounds it, have been so fascinating.

Last week, SoftBank confirmed it a Reuters report that he had not only stopped indefinitely Pepper’s production last summer, but was restructuring the Paris center of his robotics business – the critical unit for Pepper’s development since the acquisition of SoftBank in 2012 by the French company, Aldebaran Robotics. The most inattentive observer of Pepper’s impending infiltration into human society will not be shocked by the news.

Since its introduction to the world seven years ago, Pepper has largely failed to live up to its promise. She is not unhappy, and it is still possible that she inspired, at some point in her journey, a future generation of robot engineers. But his work as an automation ambassador has been mediocre, his limited functionality and the idea of ​​this beloved puppet finding a natural, meaningful place in private homes seems increasingly broad.

At least 27,000 Peppers (SoftBank claims the number is higher, but won’t specify) have been produced, with many of those left looking at customers who ignore them in SoftBank phone stores. Others have been written to greet and patrol airports, museums and the like. Dozens have been put into service as well public of the pandemic era for sporting events; many can now be spotted in the farthest recesses of Tokyo’s shops, head down and their power cables resolutely detached. He clearly survived his unnatural life.

But wait, SoftBank protested vigorously: don’t write this particular humanoid or our broader commitment to the vision of home robots. Nothing has changed. The Pepper Mill may be currently suspended, a spokeswoman said, but it will resume when inventories are released and demand resumes.

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The critical question here is not when the market will scream again for more Peppers – because it’s almost certainly not – but why SoftBank is so reluctant to declare Pepper dead and present its successor. While maintaining support for Pepper, SoftBank seems to be missing one of the most important features of humanoid robots: which, for now at least, are supposed to fail.

The important distinction, clearly portrayed by any commercial robotics event, is between serious factory automation robots, military or medical use, and waiters (often humanoids), pancake-flippers, and shirt-folders. The first ones are ready to transform your factory, logistics center, nursing home or battlefield today. The latter are here to deliver the future with concepts of guilt-free service, unconditional commitment and, above all, ambition. The first group amazes me with what they can do; the second asks for forgiveness for what he can’t even do, but with a spark that says, “I’ll be worthy one day, master.”

The only way this second group will maintain its attraction is with the notional existence of a constantly growing large scrapper – a place that Pepper now belongs to not because it’s terrible, but because a better robot must actually turn around to take its place. . The problem for SoftBank, as suggested by Pepper’s lack of death, is that while there is plenty of room for maneuver for the Son to be wrong about many of his technology investments and still emerge a overall winner, is more vulnerable to criticism when it comes to stated visions of the future of the fate that Pepper has inhabited.

If SoftBank’s problem is that it hasn’t, in fact, invested in a successor to Pepper (which also suited the company). stake very low in the Boston Dynamics robotics group), so we have to wait for an explanation why home-based humanoid robots are not in our immediate future. If he has, it’s time to introduce the heir to the world. However, SoftBank should not mourn the death of this particular seller.

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