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.

Elon Musk isn't so keen on flying cars

"Obviously, I like flying things, but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution,” Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you.”

Source: Bloomberg

Is the woolly mammoth about to come back from extinction?

Scientists from Harvard University say they are just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant. The embryo would essentially grow to be an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.

Source: The Guardian

Congress is repeatedly warned NASA’s exploration plans aren’t sustainable

An expert panel has wanred that while NASA might have some of the right tools to launch and fly to destinations in deep space, it doesn't have the resources to land on the Moon, to build a base there or to fly humans to the surface of Mars.

Source: Ars Technica

IMAX unveils first virtual reality center

The IMAX VR center, which opened this week, houses 14 different pods, each containing different VR experiences that allow users to temporarily escape real life. One of the pods takes users to the desert planet of Tatooine, which will be familiar to Star Wars fans.

Source: Variety

Could Alexa be forced to testify in an Arkansas murder trial?

A trial is about to begin over the mysterious death of a former police officer at a home in Bentonville, Arkansas. The case is significant because it could help decide whether prosecutors should be allowed to subpoena a virtual assistant.

Source: VICE

Dwarf planet Ceres emerges as a place to look for life in the solar system

Pockets of carbon-based organic compounds have been found on the surface of Ceres. The identity of the tar-like minerals have't been precisely identified, but their mineral fingerprints match the make-up of kerite or asphaltite.

Source: New Scientist

Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”