Artificial intelligence has come a long way since its beginning, and there is no other place in the world where this is more prominent than Japan. Pepper, a robotic assistant, is currently being used the country as a sales assistant for Softbank and Nestle; but there are also plans to bring the technology over to Malaysia.
Pepper comes in two configurations, one for businesses and the other being a robotic companion. The business version is aimed at replacing human employees with an AI capable of assisting customers in stores. Nestle, for example, uses Pepper to sell coffee in Japan. The robot is capable of asking people details about their coffee drinking habits, and then produce a recommendation based on that information.
Similarly, automaker Nissan bought 1,000 Pepper units to be placed in showrooms. The idea is that Pepper would be able to entertain children while the parents shop for a new car; increase the chance of a sale being made.
Alternatively, the companion version of Pepper uses a series of sensors and facial recognition technology to detect the mood of its owner. This is partially to provide a synthetic friend, but can also be used as a robotic care-taker for the elderly.
Shozo Yamaguchi, founder of Unlock Design International Sdn Bhd, has plans to bring Pepper to our country; and perhaps maybe a little more. Several Malaysian universities are interested in obtaining Pepper to enhance their AI curriculums; while companies like Digi are also expressing interest. Overall, Yamaguchi is looking to bring some 100,000 units into the country.
However, Pepper still has quite a way to go before it is ready to be used in Malaysia. One problem that exists is that Pepper is being developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics and is used exclusively in France and Japan. This has had the side effect of the robot having an extremely limited English vocabulary.
The Pepper robot on display at Big Data Week 2016 in KLCC could barely understand what was being said to it. Admittedly, this could have been affected by the amount of noise in the exhibition hall; but that may count against Pepper’s ability to interact with customers in crowded areas.
That being said, Pepper perfectly fluent in Japanese; seeing that Aldebaran’s largest customer and investor happens to be Japanese telco Softbank. Yamaguchi plans to get Pepper speaking and understanding both English and Mandarin before it sees a wider introduction into Malaysia.
Interestingly, the business version of Pepper on the show floor is also equipped with the same mood sensing sensors as its domestic counterpart. We had the opportunity to test its ability to read emotions; but it apparently judged us as not being cooperative in its calibration tests and declared this writer as not sufficiently sad for its benchmark.
Yamaguchi is not planning on stopping at simply marketing Pepper in Malaysia either. The Japanese-native who is currently residing in Malaysia is planning to approach government agencies like MDEC to set up an AI research centre here in Malaysia. Ultimately, he hopes to bring in additional Japanese expertise to turn this country into a AI hub for Southeast Asia.
For now, there are three Pepper units in Malaysia for interested parties to evaluate. Whether Malaysians are prepared to interact with robots instead of real humans is not entirely certain. After all, it’s always nice to have a friendly face to talk to.