Emotional home robot Pepper goes on sale to the public

Pepper, the personal robot that can read emotions, is finally going on sale to the public, a year after it was announced by technology giants SoftBank.

Having spent the last year among us as a greeter in SoftBank stores in Japan, Pepper has been learning, and when he – as SoftBank refers to him – launches on 20th June, he will do so with the ability to express emotions in response to its environment and interactions.

According to SoftBank, Pepper likes it when he’s praised, is relaxed around familiar faces and is scared of the dark: in other words, he’s a fairly typical child, except he comes with 12 hours of battery life and has a 10.1in touch screen fixed to his front.

Initially SoftBank will only have 1,000 units of Pepper available for sale through its website, but plans to have more available as the year progresses.

The robot will cost ¥198,000 ($1,612), with the option of paying in monthly instalments, and additional insurance is available for ¥9,800 ($80) a month.

Images courtesy of SoftBank.

Images courtesy of SoftBank.

Pepper’s touch screen provides its owners with the option to download around 200 different apps to enable Pepper to be tailored to different uses, and a developer program has been launched to encourage the creation of further apps.

One such app, Pepper’s Diary, charts the robot’s changing emotions alongside family events and photos, providing the ability to record your changing home life from the point of view of an emotionally responsive bot.

However, the jury is still out on whether Peppers varying emotional states are convincing – he will raise his voice or even sigh if appropriate, and his touch screen maintains a visual indication of his mood in the form of an animated, colour-changing heart.

According to SoftBank, however, there is some complex stuff going on behind Pepper’s plastic facade to deliver this feat.

“These emotion functions in Pepper are modelled on the human release of hormones in response to stimuli absorbed by the five senses which in turn generate emotions,” the company said in a statement.

“ In addition to Pepper’s emotion recognition functions, Pepper has capabilities to generate emotions autonomously by processing information from his cameras, touch sensors, accelerometer and other sensors within his ‘endocrine-type multi-layer neural network’.”

Touted as a robot that will keep children occupied, provide companionship and maintain the mood at parties, Pepper is a curiously unique offering in the world of robots.

It’s highly likely that the first batch will sell like hot cakes, but whether it proves to be the start of a trend in robotics remains to be seen.

Many of us would probably be interested in a talking, interacting robot, but it is not yet clear whether Pepper is destined for release outside of Japan. SoftBank has, however, gone to the trouble of keeping the english-speaking media up-to-date about the bot, so there is a decent possibility that they are waiting to see if there is any demand from beyond the Japanese shores.

However, with SoftBank also launching a Pepper for Business range, perhaps Pepper’s future is not so much as a cheery companion, but as a replacement for roles such as greeters. And given the robot’s price and demeanour, humans might struggle to compete.

Adding stem cells to the brains of mice “slowed or reversed” ageing

Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists “slowed or reversed” ageing in mice by injecting stem cells into their brains.

The study, published online in the journal Nature, saw the scientists implant stem cells into mice’s hypothalamus, which caused molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs) to be released.

The miRNA molecules were then extracted from the hypothalamic stem cells and injected into the cerebrospinal fluid of two groups of mice: middle-aged mice whose hypothalamic stem cells had been destroyed and normal middle-aged mice.

This treatment significantly slowed aging in both groups of animals as measured by tissue analysis and behavioural testing that involved assessing changes in the animals’ muscle endurance, coordination, social behaviour and cognitive ability.

“Our research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging,” said senior author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein.

“But we also found that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it’s possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body.”

To reach the conclusion that stem cells in the hypothalamus held the key to aging, the scientists first looked at the fate cells in the hypothalamus as healthy mice got older.

The number of hypothalamic stem cells began to diminish when the mice reached about 10 months, which is several months before the usual signs of aging start appearing. “By old age—about two years of age in mice—most of those cells were gone,” said Dr. Cai.

Images courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.

The researchers next wanted to learn whether this progressive loss of stem cells was actually causing aging and was not just associated with it.

To do this, the scientists observed what happened when they selectively disrupted the hypothalamic stem cells in middle-aged mice.

“This disruption greatly accelerated aging compared with control mice, and those animals with disrupted stem cells died earlier than normal,” said Dr. Cai.

Finally, to work out whther adding stem cells to the hypothalamus counteracted ageing, the scientists injected hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of middle-aged mice whose stem cells had been destroyed as well as into the brains of normal old mice.

In both groups of animals, the treatment slowed or reversed various measures of aging.

The scientists are now trying to identify the particular populations of microRNAs that are responsible for the anti-aging effects seen in mice, which is perhaps the first step toward slowing the aging process and successfully treating age-related diseases in humans.

Self-driving delivery cars coming to UK roads by 2018

A driverless vehicle designed to deliver goods to UK homes is set to take to the road next year after the successful conclusion of an equity crowdfunding campaign.

Developed by engineers at The University of Aberystwyth-based startup The Academy of Robotics, the vehicle, Kar-Go, is road-legal, and capable of driving on roads without any specific markings without human intervention.

Kar-Go has successfully raised £321,000 through Crowdcube – 107% of its goal – meaning the company now has the funds to build its first commercially ready vehicles. This amount will also, according to William Sachiti, Academy of Robotics founder and CEO, be matched by “one of the largest tech companies” in the world.

Images courtesy of Academy of Robotics

The Academy of Robotics has already built and tested a prototype version of Kar-Go, and is working with UK car manufacturer Pilgrim to produce the fully street-legal version.

The duo has already gained legal approval from the UK government’s Centre for Autonomous Vehicles, meaning the cars will be able to immediately operate on UK roads once built.

The aim of Kar-Go is to partner with suppliers of everyday consumer goods to significantly reduce the cost of deliveries, and the company’s goal in this area is ambitious: Sachiti believes Kar-Go could reduce delivery costs by as much as 98%.

Whether companies go for the offering remains to be seen, but the company says it is in early stage discussions with several of the largest fast-moving consumer goods companies in Europe, which would likely include the corporations behind some of the most recognisable brands found in UK supermarkets.

Introducing Kar-go Autonomous Delivery from Academy of Robotics on Vimeo.

While some will be sceptical, Sachiti is keen to drive the company to success, and already has an impressive track record in future-focused business development. He previously founded Clever Bins – the solar powered digital advertising bins found in many of the nation’s cities – and digital concierge service MyCityVenue – now part of SecretEscapes.

“As a CEO, it is one of my primary duties to make sure Kar-go remains a fantastic investment, this can only be achieved by our team producing spectacular results. We can’t wait to show the world what we produce,” he said.

“We have a stellar team who are excited to have begun working on what we believe will probably be the best autonomous delivery vehicle in the world. For instance, our multi-award winning lead vehicle designer is part of the World Championship winning Brabham Formula One design team, and also spent years as a Design Engineer at McLaren.”