Robot nanny to be sold in Japanese stores from 2015

SoftBank, a Japanese technology megacorporation, has announced the launch of an emotionally responsive, human-like robot for home use.

The robot, known as Pepper, has been described by the company as the “world’s first personal robot that reads emotions”, and is designed to target Japan’s home care market, which faces a significant shortfall of workers.

The robot is primarily being pushed as a companion for children, with SoftBank suggesting Pepper could read and interact with children, later reporting the children’s positive emotional responses to their mothers.

At birthdays, Pepper could be found encouraging fun by initiating singing and dancing, a prospect that’s sure to add additional air of cringe to any family gathering.

Other more serious possible uses for the robot include as a nurse or emergency medical workers. It could also prove an effective companion for elderly people.

Speaking at press conference in Tokyo this morning, Masayoshi Son, SoftBank CEO, said: “People describe others as being robots because they have no emotions, no heart. For the first time in human history, we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions.”

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The robot is designed to ‘learn’ by recognising positive emotions and adjusting its behaviour autonomously in response.

This learning approach is accelerated through an interconnected cloud AI: habits and likes of a family that own a Pepper robot are learnt by the unit and shared with its fellow robots to provide an overall increase emotional response.

Although SoftBank admits that Pepper will initially make mistakes, it believes that over time this cloud AI should result in more empathetic robots that can more accurately read emotions and situations.

With large, round eyes and a build that is highly reminiscent of the NAO robot that is popular with robot researchers working with children, Pepper clearly supports the mantra that faces make robots more trustworthy. And given that parents are being encouraged to treat the robot as a baby sitter, this is a vital component of the robot’s design.

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Pepper will be showcased in SoftBank’s Ginza and Omotesando stores in Tokyo from tomorrow as a greeter, so we are likely to hear early feedback about its effectiveness within weeks.

We’ll have to wait longer to learn how it fairs in homes, though, as it won’t be available for sale until February 2015.

Once it does go on sale, however, it could prove a runaway success. Pepper is being retailed at the shockingly reasonable price of ¥198,000 (£1,150/$1,900) plus tax, making it within reach of typical families, as well as schools and care homes.


Images courtesy of SoftBank.


Drone spacecraft will let us explore inaccessible parts of galaxy: NASA scientists

Autonomous spacecraft are under development, and will in the future allow us to explore parts of the solar system, and later the galaxy, that are inaccessible to human explorers, according to NASA scientists.

Writing in the journal Science Robotics, Steve Chien and Kiri L Wagstaff, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that the next generation of space robots will be able to “think for themselves”, allowing them to continue to take readings, interpret data and detect notable geological events on other planets, even when out of contact with Earth.

“By making their own exploration decisions, robotic spacecraft can conduct traditional science investigations more efficiently and even achieve otherwise impossible observations, such as responding to a short-lived plume at a comet millions of miles from Earth,” the authors wrote.

An artist’s impression of the ongoing unmanned Juno mission. Above: An artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft passing through short-lived plumes on Saturn’s Enceladus moon. Images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Autonomous spacecraft would tackle one of the biggest issues currently faced when working with unmanned spacecraft: communication blackouts. At present, work with unmanned craft is hampered by periods where communication is impossible, or very delayed. In these cases, the craft can often be sat idling, with no instructions to undertake until it gets back into contact.

However, advancements in artificial intelligence are increasingly making it possible for such spacecraft to continue to work without direct instruction, instead carrying out overall directives in response to the environments they are operating in.

“One goal of autonomy is to enable robots to detect and respond to unexpected conditions without sitting idle until the next Earth command arrives,” wrote Chien and Wagstaff. “In an exciting development, many spacecraft have increasing ability to make their own decisions and accelerate scientific discoveries.”

The spacecraft could even respond to short-lived events that normally would not be possible to capture due to the delay between scientists on Earth recognising such an event was happening and the spacecraft receiving an instruction to record data from it. One example of such an event would be active plumes, such as those recently observed on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which may in the future be observed on other bodies including moons and comets.

The current best available image of the Alpha Centauri group, taken by the Hubble space telescope. Autonomous spacecraft could be used to make the 60-year journey to the system. Image courtesy of ESA/NASA

The advancements could even, the authors say, allow systems outside of our galaxy to be explored. The neighbouring system of Alpha Centauri, for example, would take a robot spacecraft 60 years to get to, making it a viable option for a drone craft to explore, but not one we could send humans to.

“The ultimate challenge for robotic science explorers would be to visit our nearest neighbouring solar system, Alpha Centauri,” Chien and Wagstaff wrote.

“Upon arrival, the spacecraft would need to operate independently for years, even decades, exploring multiple planets in the system. Today’s AI innovations are paving the way to make this kind of autonomy a reality.”

Team behind Star Wars’ BB-8 robot launches company to bring personal robots to the masses

Sphero, the company behind the much sought-after Star Wars BB-8 robot, has announced that it has created a new company to develop personal robots for both the home and office.

The company, Misty Robotics, has bagged $11.5m in funding and, according to a press release announcing its formation, plans “to put a personal robot in every home and office”.

With early examples of personal robots now on sale, the technology looks to be the next major gadget category to enter our lives, performing tasks for us, helping to keep us safe and proving friendly and supportive interaction.

“We see tremendous opportunity for the personal robot market, and the creation of Misty Robotics will allow the new company to focus on these efforts,” said Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero.

Sphero’s BB-8 robot. Image courtesy of Sphero and © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd. Lead image courtesy of Misty Robotics

While no details have been revealed as to exactly what these personal robots will look like, the company has said that it plans to initially release one robot, alongside a “collaborative ecosystem” for further robots to be developed.

“Soon robots will be a constant touchpoint throughout our lives, becoming commonplace and serving a variety of purposes that are very different than what exists today. We have a rough idea as to what this will look like from science fiction and glimpses of brilliance that have happened in this space,” said Ian Bernstein, co-founder and CTO of Sphero and head of product at Misty Robotics.

“My vision is for Misty Robotics to lead this charge toward delivering the future we were all promised. We’ve already started to build an amazingly passionate team of roboticists and are looking for more talent to help us build the future.”

Pepper is one of the few personal robots already on the market. Image courtesy of Jake Curtis / Alderbaran Robotics

At present the leader in the personal robot market is Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by Softbank-owned Aldebaran Robotics. Having been launched in Japan, Pepper has now found its way into some homes in the country, however is largely been marketed to companies as a greeter for stores and hospitals.

However, it is clear that if a personal robot can be developed that is within financial reach of the average consumer, it has significant potential to be a success. Pepper attracted significant attention when it was first announced, and other products have since been developed that have also proved popular.

Nevertheless, the market is undoubtedly young, and the killer product for the Western market has yet to emerge. If Misty can develop an engaging personal robot at an affordable price, they could become a leader in the field.