New Conversational Robot Unveiled by Softbank and Aldebaran

Pepper RobotSoftbank Mobile, the Japanese wireless carrier, and Aldebaran Robotics, a robotics company headquartered in France, announced a partnership to build and distribute an intelligent robot called Pepper. The announcement was made with a lot of fanfare at a Softbank event in Japan. Bruno Maisonnier, Aldebaran’s Founder & CEO, describes Pepper as an emotional robot. Like Aldebaran’s smaller robot NAO, Pepper is equipped with sensors and software that enable it to detect human emotions through both visual and voice cues. Pepper itself is designed to appear friendly and non-threatening and to evoke emotions of happiness and ease in those who interact with it. I wrote about NAO in an earlier post.

You can watch a webcast of the entire press event where Pepper is presented to a live audience. Most of the webcast is in Japanese and the dubbed over translation is a bit awkward to listen to. If you fast forward to about Minute 36:00, you can watch Maisonnier’s introduction of Pepper in English (not dubbed over). It’s difficult to tell from the demo how conversational the current version of Pepper really is. According to Yuri Kageyama of the Associated Press who covered the live demo, Pepper looks good but displayed serious limitations. The robot’s voice recognition system appears to need some improvements, and its conversational abilities seem fairly rudimentary.

Maisonnier talks about an ecosystem and set of APIs for Pepper that will allow developers to create third-party apps for the robot. He specially mentions a physical “atelier” where developers can get together in person and collaborate on coding projects. The Aldebaran website currently supports a store where NAO owners can download apps to augment the skills of their robots. There’s also an Aldebaran developer community that you can register for and take part in. It would be great if there was a way for chatbot scripters, or others with an aptitude for creating conversational stories, to package dialog or story content and make it available to run on the NAO and Pepper platforms.

Will Pepper acquire truly compelling conversational skills? That remains to be seen. But unless it can carry on a consistent conversation with us, or entertain us with engaging stories, it seems unlikely that Pepper will become the breakthrough technology that Softbank and Aldebaran claim it to be.


Aldebaran’s NAO Robot Wants to Have a Talk With Us

NAOMashable recently published a short article on Paris-based Aldebaran’s humanoid robot. The robot, called NAO (apparently pronounced “Now”) already has the ability to mimic human movements. It comes with a programmable architecture and a CPU running a Linux kernel.

Now Aldebaran has ambitions to transform their android into a fully functional conversational robot. The company recently inked a deal with Nuance to integrate voice recognition and natural language processing technology into NAO’s architecture.

According to the Mashable article, NAO will have access to data in the cloud that will enable it to build its vocabulary and eventually carry on conversations. When combined with its face and object recognition, NAO might be useful in many different environments. Aldebaran considers the android to have a place in education and research. If it develops its dialog skills successfully, it might even be a suitable companion and assistant for people of advanced age. Aldebaran is currently working on software modules that enable NAO to interact effectively with children suffering from autism related disorders.

It certainly remains to be seen how successful NAO will be at carrying on a meaningful conversation. Building a vocabulary doesn’t translate into having the ability to hold a true conversation, where parties listen to one another and ask questions that layer upon earlier elements of the dialog. Having a real conversation is different from just answering questions. Will we be able to talk with NAO, or will NAO just talk to us? It’ll be interesting to watch the robot’s progress and find out.