SoftBank’s Pepper robot is dead, and The Wall Street Journal is dancing upon its grave with a thorough account of how the “emotional robot” failed to live up to the hype. Expectations were so inflated back in 2014 that the first batch of 1,000 robots sold out in a minute, despite being priced close to $2,000.
The entire article is well worth a read as a reminder that tech is hard, and predicting its impact on society is even harder.
Although SoftBank certainly overhyped Pepper, saying its launch would be remembered “100, 200, or 300 years” into the future, humans are also to blame for getting sucked in by the bot’s doe-eyed demeanor, despite The Verge’s article titled “I met an emotional robot and felt nothing.”
The WSJ report does credit the robot, which also required monthly subscriptions starting at $550, with being able to take temperatures about as well as a $1 thermometer. It could also function as a rudimentary hotel concierge. Otherwise, Pepper failed at almost every other task assigned and ended up being roughly as sophisticated as the smart speakers that were appearing around the same time. Its failures include such improbable jobs as Buddhist priest and exercise coach for the elderly. But it also failed at tasks like home companionship for which it seemed ideally suited, as recounted by tech journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa.
After arriving at the Ishikawa home, however, Pepper couldn’t recognize the faces of family members or carry on a proper conversation, said Mr. Ishikawa. The robot, connected to the cloud, is supposed to remember the family even after a breakdown, Mr. Ishikawa says, but when Pepper returned home after the repair of a sensor, Pepper greeted him, “Nice to meet you!”
He shipped the robot back to SoftBank in 2018 after spending at least $9,000 over the three-year life of his subscription services agreement; he wasn’t eligible for any form of refund.
“It was such a waste of money. I still regret it,” he said.
Pepper was also a terrible cheerleader, dispatched by the 100s to raise enthusiasm for SoftBank’s professional baseball team during the COVID lockdowns.
Commenters said the scene reminded them of a dystopia. Hirofumi Miyato, 56, of Tokyo, was watching a game on television and saw the Pepper group in team uniforms moving their arms in unison. He wasn’t inspired to cheer along. “It reminded me of a military parade in North Korea or China,” Mr. Miyato said. “It felt creepy.”