This is not science fiction anymore.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that SoftBank Corp. sold out its entire initial production run of 1,000 robots in the first minute of sales last Saturday. These are billed as the world’s first robots capable of understanding and responding to human emotions. The four foot tall robots can recognize human voices and read facial expressions and body language, as well as carry on basic conversations. Softbank is planning production runs of 1,000 per month.
Pepper, as “he” is known, is designed as a social companion and can tell if you’re in a good mood or if something is bothering you. He will even try to cheer you up if you are feeling sad by playing one of your favorite songs.
One of the first applications for Pepper is as a home companion. So he could be ideal for elderly or infirm adults, or as a buddy for those in medical facilities. It seems that it’s only a matter of time before he breaks into the world of professional customer service, where he’ll never get mad or impatient. His creators also see him as a possible assistant in retail shops and offices.
People may get nervous about being replaced by robots, but in reality this started long ago. Spreadsheets replaced rows of accounting clerks with adding machines, email replaced thousands of mail carriers, and online directories replaced telephone operators. And 100 years before that, automobiles replaced horses and power saws replaced lumberjacks. Those inventions weren’t called robots, but they functioned the same way by automating repetitive human tasks.
Although many of these innovations replaced people, the overall changes have been positive and profound. Child labor, common at the start of the 20th century, has been abolished, the workweek has shortened by almost 10 hours while pay has increased, medical and vacation benefits are now common and safety has dramatically improved. For example, railroad deaths in 1990 were over 2,500 per year. By 1999, they were down to 56 annually.
Adding robots to the workplace will continue these benefits, making our lives easier and more productive. It’s just going to take a little time getting used to Pepper and his relatives sitting next to us.
Photo: The Wall Street Journal