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.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.