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Even with Watson brains, robots need practical skills

Tim Hornyak | Feb. 17, 2015
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.

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."


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