Hawaii Travelogue: A Japan away from Japan [Ch.11 Pepper the Robot]

By | July 6, 2017

This article is a part of series of articles about my 2017 trip to Hawaii. Please see the table of contents that contains links to other chapters.

Pepper the Robot

I’ve been into robotics for quite for some time, and that has started to rub off on my son. He really enjoys watching videos of cutting edge robots, especially a humanoid one called Pepper that’s designed and made in Japan. Pepper looks a little like the classic anime character Astro Boy and has movable head and arms, and can interactively speak as well as gesture in a variety of ways.

We thought we were going to have to wait until our Japan trip before we could see Pepper in person, but after a little research discovered there was one of these high-tech robots actually in Honolulu, right near our hotel!

We went to visit Pepper in the “Mahalo Lounge” of ANA in the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, which is where ANA club members can relax and have a drink. We aren’t members, but we called ahead and they said it would OK to interact with Pepper briefly.

When we reached the entrance to the lounge, we were very happy to see Pepper, however his head was down as if frozen in a deep bow, and his screen (a tablet stuck to his chest) was dark; apparently he was turned off. Fortunately one of the women at the desk was the same one we talked to on the phone a few minutes ago, and she was kind enough to turn on Pepper’s switch. We waited for around 2-3 minutes as he did his bootup process.

Eventually his head raised as he came alive and started speaking to us with naturally phrased speech (in Japanese) as well as fluid hand and head motions. One of his eerie traits was staring at my face and tracking it as I moved. That is natural for a human, however seeing a robot do it was a bit weird.

His screen now showed a few options, and we chose the one about the merits of the lounge, which he proceeded to talk about us about.

I tried asking him his name as a test of listening comprehension (お名前は何ですか?) and while he didn’t understand my question, he did know enough to ask if I had spoken. Unfortunately, repeating the phrase slower, with clearer enunciation didn’t seem help much. Maybe there was a problem with the unit, or some adjustment required, but nevertheless we were disappointed in his speech recognition abilities in this brief test, especially when considered in the light of Apple’s very functional Siri which has been around for some time now.

While we were very happy to be able to finally see Pepper, it was a little awkward since we weren’t members and weren’t really planning becoming members, so we didn’t feel comfortable staying too long. We stopped by again later in the day, but for some reason Pepper had been shut off again. I am not sure if they were conserving power, but it’s unfortunate they were not making good use of this eye-catching technology.

I hope when we next see Pepper, likely in Japan, we can spend some more time interacting with him and see what he has to offer. While I think he is more designed to provide information rather than act as a generic multi-purpose robot, the technology developed for him is surely an important step towards more advanced robotics. See more information about Pepper here.

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