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Catching up With Pepper, the Surprisingly Helpful Humanoid Robot

From Wired - April 13, 2018

Listen, humans are great and all, but sometimes theyre horrible. Thats especially true if youve just spent 12 hours stuck in a flying aluminum tube with a few hundred of them. Now all you want to do is lock yourself in a hotel room, and for the love of all that is holy get away from humans.

Ah, but wait. The cursed fates dictate that someones gotta check you into your hotel. So you roll into the lobby, heartbroken, to find humans behind the counter, but also a humanoid robot called Pepper. You strike up a conversation with the robot, and one thing leads to another and its checked you into your room, no human interaction required.

Youve just avoided getting cranky with a well-meaning person, sure. But youve also done something more subtle: Youve interacted with a robot like few humans have before you. Because Pepper is part of the first wave of intelligent machines that promise to not only make our lives easier, but to bring a strange new form of interaction into being.

To be clear, Pepper isnt meant to replace hotel employees altogether, but to complement them. I think for the very near future what you are going to see with robotics is more around replacing and automating tasks as opposed to full blown duties of different jobs and roles, says Steve Carlin, chief strategy officer of SoftBank Robotics America, which makes Pepper.

Pepper can walk you through the check-in process either with a conversation or through a touchscreen on its chest, but it has to call a human if you want help with your bags. (The robot has arms, but theyre not meant for lifting things. Instead, they help make Pepper expressive.) The hospitality industry is just far too complex and sensitive for a robot to navigate on its own. Want to complain that you didnt get a non-smoking room, and than instead of a new room you want a refund so you can take your business elsewhere? Good luck getting Pepper to understand.

The problem is context. Pepper can handle basic conversationwhats your room confirmation number, do I have the right room here, would you like help with your bags. Lots of yes/no questioning. Robots do not understand ambiguity, says Omar Abdelwahed, head of studio for SoftBank Robotics America.

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