Even with Watson brains, robots need practical skills

SoftBank's Pepper is teaming up with IBM's Watson, but what it needs is kitchen smarts

IBM researcher Risa Nishiyama poses with SoftBank's Pepper robot using Watson in a demonstration at IBM Research - Tokyo.

IBM researcher Risa Nishiyama poses with SoftBank's Pepper robot using Watson in a demonstration at IBM Research - Tokyo.

What do you get if you take a cute humanoid robot and pair it with one of the world's best artificial intelligence programs? A smarter humanoid with few practical skills.

Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank introduced a talking household machine called Pepper last year, and it's now hooking up with Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence platform.

The prospect of the AI, a winner on the "Jeopardy!" quiz show, becoming embodied in the doe-eyed droid may be frightening or enchanting depending on your perspective. But it's unlikely to make the robot any more useful due to its physical limitations.

SoftBank and IBM are planning to use Watson with Pepper, but they haven't specified how. The quiz show champ is a cloud-based platform that can be used to sift through large volumes of data and answer questions posed in natural language. IBM has billed "cognitive computing" as a nimble form of AI that will be able to look at and use unstructured data. Watson has been deployed in the U.S. to help doctors identify treatment options for cancer patients.

SoftBank is rolling out Watson in Japan and wants to apply it to fields such as education, banking, retail and medicine. In banking, for instance, Watson could be used to answer questions about asset management, according to SoftBank.

With a constant high-speed Internet connection, Pepper could channel Watson and become something more sophisticated than what it does now: sing songs, help sell mobile phones and appear in ads for canned coffee with actor Tommy Lee Jones. Like Honda's Asimo robot, Pepper is a corporate ambassador.

At a demo held last September, Pepper was linked to Watson when it answered a moderator's question, "What weapon was invented by Ernest Swinton and used in 1916?" Pepper seemed to "think" for a moment before saying, "Tank."

Even though Pepper didn't respond with a question, it was another version of Watson's "Jeopardy!" routine, one that evoked super-intelligent robots of science fiction such as C-3PO or Data. But few people will be willing to shell out ¥198,000 (US$1,653), Pepper's planned sale price, for a quiz master that can't do much else.

Constrained by its hardware limitations, Pepper can't cook or clean, as developer Aldebaran Robotics of France readily admits at the top of a promotional web page. Its rubber-tipped fingers could probably grasp clothing, an Aldebaran researcher speculated via email, but it clearly wasn't designed to carry things. Pepper is an empathy robot.

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son unveiled Pepper in a dramatic press event as the world's first robot that can read human emotions. It can read facial expressions, tone of voice and body language to better communicate with people.

Pepper can mishear responses in a conversation, however, and that can be frustrating. A super-intelligent Pepper would also face challenges. Watson requires a degree of robustness in voice recognition that Pepper lacks, Osaka University roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, known for his extremely lifelike android-style humanoid robots, said in an email.

With less-than-perfect conversation, there's all the more need for Pepper to help out around the house, something that would vastly improve its consumer appeal. Roomba by iRobot is an international success because it frees its owners from an unpleasant physical chore -- cleaning floors. The long-term challenge for humanoid robots is to be effective household tools, not just chatterboxes.

Pepper was supposed to go on sale this month, but the commercial release has been delayed to June or later. SoftBank said it will initially sell only to developers due to higher-than-expected demand.

The good thing is that CEO Son sees robotics as a long-term play with plenty of incentive for improving a platform like Pepper. He's willing to forgo profit in the short term while investing in something he sees as part of that much-debated moment when AI will supposedly surpass human intelligence.

"The Singularity is coming, sooner or later," Son said at an earnings presentation. "It's just a matter of time. When that happens, I hope the robots, the artificial intelligence, will be something good for mankind. We are partially responsible for that."

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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