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Armed with Watson smarts, Pepper aspires to be a robot salesman

Tim Hornyak | July 31, 2015
Japanese robot Pepper is getting an intelligence upgrade via IBM's Watson, but that doesn't make interacting with the real world any less challenging.

Japanese robot Pepper is getting an intelligence upgrade via IBM's Watson, but that doesn't make interacting with the real world any less challenging.

The humanoid will channel Watson's artificial intelligence (AI) knowledge base when it starts work as a sales clerk next year at Yamada Denki, a major electronics retailer.

Pepper has helped sell goods such as smartphones and coffee machines before, but engineers hope Watson's ability to suggest relevant information will lead to richer interactions with customers. The robot can be programmed with a specific goal in mind -- to move stock out the door.

Laden with sensors, the cloud-connected Pepper has been marketed as a communication robot with a feel-good vibe and penchant for jokes, but developers are trying to make it more useful. One problem is the bottlenecks inherent in "embodying" the Watson AI platform and its natural-language processing powers in the real world via a robot like Pepper.

In a demo on Thursday, IBM described how Pepper can identify customers in a shop, approach them and strike up a conversation, and answer their questions about products such as flatscreen TVs with an eye to making a sale. It could even bring related information, such as the start of 4K broadcasts, to bear. The demo took place at a tech show in Tokyo hosted by mobile carrier SoftBank, which put Pepper on the Japanese market last month.

Watson servers in the U.S. had been fed information related to conversations about TVs so that the software could choose the best answer when given a query. It employs a dialog manager, a question-and-answer engine and speech-text interfaces.

But amid the noise of the show, the robot often failed to recognize what was being said by an IBM staffer acting as a customer. That doesn't bode well for working at Japanese electronics retail outlets, which resound with shouts from human clerks trying to get attention.

Pepper also had difficulties in another demo designed to showcase its ability to recognize everyday objects. Staff from SoftBank cloud service firm Cocoro SB, which engineered the robot's "emotion engine," presented things like candy, a bar of soap and a tube of toothpaste to a camera on Pepper, and named each in turn.

Later, when presented with the candy, for instance, Pepper said in high-pitched Japanese, "Let's see....that's a bar of Kao White soap." Onlookers burst out laughing.

The firm attributed the goofs to a lack of training data in the neural network the robot uses to identify things. The network compares the features of an image to high-level descriptions of other images in its database to find a match.

As Pepper practiced more throughout the day, its performance improved. But when shown a voice recorder, which was something totally new, it identified it as a tube of toothpaste. After being presented with the recorder in three different orientations, it was able to identify it correctly.

 

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